Thursday, May 22, 2008

New Music: At Mount Zoomer

Despite how much has happened since September 2005, Wolf Parade's debut, With Apologies To The Queen Mary still sounds fresh. At the time, it seemed Wolf Parade was just like any other band - a group of people who tour and write music together. Except there was a small difference: Wolf Parade had two songwriters; they were a sort of an indie rock Fugazi. In the three years since then, both writers (Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug) have found their own avenues and developed their own sounds. Boeckner's Handsome Furs project features rather straightforward songwriting and song structure with little musical arrangement - just his voice and guitar over his wife's electronics. Though Handsome Furs is much better than their description sounds, it is still overshadowed by Krug's work with Sunset Rubdown, a solo outing-turned full band. Featuring three albums of complex arrangements, clever lyricism, and, well, epic bombast, Sunset Rubdown seems to have become Krug's main musical outlet (and put out one of the best 60 minutes of this generation with Random Spirit Lover).

Yes, Wolf Parade has revealed itself to be a sort of super-group. Just look at the amount of side-projects held by its members...

Spencer Krug: Sunset Rubdown, Frog Eyes, Swan Lake, Fifths of Seven
Dan Boeckner: Handsome Furs
Dante DeCaro: Hot Hot Heat, Johnny and the Moon
Hadji Bakara: Megasoid
Arlen Thompson: played drums for the Arcade Fire, though not a part of the band

Supergroups definitely have a stigma to them, and for good reason: they rarely work well together. Even when they do work well, most people would rather just listen to their members' other work. But Canadian supergroups, at least these days, seem to be an exception to the rule (see The New Pornographers, and Swan Lake), so it's necessary to keep an open mind about Wolf Parade's latest, At Mount Zoomer.

Sorry about the 300 word preamble, but it's necessary to know the facts before listening to this album. Not because it affects the listening experience, but to highlight just what an achievement this album is.

The review begins here...

Let's just get this out of the way: there is no "I'll Believe In Anything" on At Mount Zoomer. In fact, most of the pop sensibilities from With Apologies To The Queen Mary are gone. At Mount Zoomer aims for something more than just a collection of single-worthy tunes (not to take anything away from With Apologies' greatness) - this is a cohesive remark about the state of the band... They aren't going anywhere.

Opener "Soldier's Grin" may be the best song Dan Boeckner has ever written. The first half of the song gives At Mount Zoomer a sunny beginning, but it doesn't last long - "Soldier's Grin" transitions into an intense, slow-paced stomp unlike anything Boeckner or Wolf Parade have done before. Yes, Boeckner's songs are obviously his, but this is the sound of Spencer Krug at work. It's the sound of Handsome Furs and Sunset Rubdown fusing into one - the ideal Wolf Parade.

Though At Mount Zoomer features the best songs of Boeckner's career, he doesn't necessarily steal the show. Krug's writing captures the same intensity as his latest Sunset Rubdown release, Random Spirit Lover. However, these aren't the kind of masterful pop songs Krug may be best known for ("I'll Believe In Anything", "All Fires"). Instead, these are mood pieces - their dramatic stories (ranging from escape and peril to a scorned lover) give At Mount Zoomer a sort of dark energy or menace: the "take" to Boeckner's "give." Oh yeah, and his voice still sounds as if he's being strangled while singing - it's a love or hate affair.

The individual performances here mesh very well - this sounds like the work of a full-time band, not a side project. Though it's not clear which guitar is Boeckner's and which is Dante DeCaro's, it doesn't matter; the work here is masterful, validating Sub Pop's dissertation that At Mount Zoomer is this generation's Marquee Moon (by Television). Krug and Hadji Bakara's keyboards are equally impressive, and it seems by his drumming that Arlen Thompson has been listening to Sunset Rubdown (this is a good thing).

This is all well and good for the nine songs on the album; there are not very many weak points on At Mount Zoomer. The closest it comes to a let down is Krug's "California Dreamer", not because it's a bad song, but because it's exuberance doesn't seem to match the song's subject matter very well. At first listen, 10-minute closer "Kissing The Beehive" also seems like a mistake. It aims for three epic movements, but can seem impenetrable until further listens reveal all of the hooks waiting to be discovered...

In a way, "Kissing The Beehive" is a microcosm of At Mount Zoomer: it's a duet between Krug and Boeckner backed by thunderous drums, eerie keyboards, and aggressive guitar work... At least for the beginning. Soon, "Kissing The Beehive" turns into a dance-rock party fueled by a twitchy high-hat and a killer guitar riff (presumably DeCarto's - he was in Hot Hot Heat, you know). As if it was his last breath, Krug yelps, "Fire in the hole!" during the section - in any other context this would be cheesy, but, wow, it works so well here! Then, the song suddenly turns ominous, and remains so for the its last three minutes, as if it were exit music as the band walks off-stage... It's intentionally leaving you wanting more; it's almost a promise that they'll be back. Just wait and see.

Hopefully, we won't have to wait three more years though...

No comments: