Sunset Rubdown and Wolf Parade? In that order? Surely, the band whose debut almost nabbed the top-slot in Pitchfork’s Albums of 2005 list shouldn't be playing second-fiddle? Spencer Krug's other concern, Sunset Rubdown, may not be threatening Wolf Parade for the title of biggest indie crossover just yet, but they’re the most thrillingly weird posse of indie tunesmiths I’ve discovered in the past 18 months, and if you want a world-class glam-prog-freakfolk-psych band to call your own, get in quickly. Sadly, the internet myth proves untrue, that Wolf Parade were formed in response to a request from Win Butler for a support act when Arcade Fire were due to capitalize on their best-new-band-in-the-world-status, but the truth (that SunRub went from solo project to band-proper, when Frog Eyes needed support) opens up a whole network of even-more exciting bands who more than make you believe this kind of story.
Did I say ‘prog’ just now? Well, yeah – but I also said ‘glam’, and I meant it, because I’ve been babbling to complete strangers about how Spencer might just be the next David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust, and I don’t mean in a Brett Anderson/Brian Molko way; instead I mean, in a "star-man / waiting in the sky / he’d like to come and help us / but he thinks he’d blow our minds…" way. (To be super-accurate, Sunset Rubdown sound most like T Rex if they were actually good, but 1970s Bowie’s more flattering, no?). Plus, the sound’s developing so fast, the next album could go all Led Zeppelin: check 'Idiot Heart' (available at daytrotter.com) for some kick-ass Jimmy Page-style axe-work, and the sexiest lyric ever to feature a mythological figure: "he strode around like he might own the joint / just like Icarus thought he might…own the sky".
Backing up a little, what distinguishes a Sunset Rubdown song is its unusual contours – which isn’t necessarily a hallmark of greatness by itself, but it’s one of those idiosyncrasies that often marks out a rare talent. Take Palace Brothers – the default setting is a mid-tempo trudge, as if beneath overcast skies… and then a sudden glimpse of sun through clouds, that is the song’s hook; as if to say, Life is Drudgery, or the Long Journey Home. By analogy, Sunset Rubdown songs are often an uncertain stumble through cold mists and half-formed melodies, over treacherous ground and broken rhythms… and then the arrival at the Gilded Palace of Psychedelia, with drums kicking in, guitars and synths a-blazing. Okay, that’s not necessarily true to life, but it’s true to love, and it’s true to dabbling in recreational drugs, and it’s true to traditional fun like a really good Hallowe’en party.
Incidentally, I caught them at the Luminaire in Kilburn, early 2008, after four months guzzling Deep House and Techno, having been a teetotaller when it comes to that kinda stuff, my whole life. Nonetheless, believe you me, I wasn’t the only person dancing like a pilled-up fraggle that night… and I doubt a single person there was chemically enhanced. So, there’s a moral for you kids: don’t do drugs – get yourself a Sunset Rubdown record.
So... below you'll find an annotated discography of the main projects featuring Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner - the songwriters from Wolf Parade. Sunset Rubdown is Spencer's band, and Handsome Furs is Dan's. Also mentioned are Frog Eyes (Carey Mercer, Spencer, et alia), and Swan Lake, which is Spencer, Carey, and Dan Bejar, from Destroyer. Spencer's solo-debut has been omitted, lest I say anything unkind.
[09 / 10]
“Sugar Mountain” was Neil Young’s metaphor for childhood, and even if you know “Mt Zoomer” is in fact the name of the band’s studio, it still evokes nostalgia for the shiny sounds you’ll remember if you were born in the seventies. If Sunset Rubdown sound like a 90s supergroup playing 70s psychedelia, then this year’s Wolf Parade are a 21st century supergroup playing 1980s new wave & synthpop. In case you need clues to their pop fixation, check some of the unapologetic lyrical steals: "hang on the tele-phone / on the tele-phone" referencing Blondie (or St Etienne) ; Spencer’s 'California Dreamer'; and an actual track called 'Fine Young Cannibals' (which sounds way more like 1980s Genesis before they shed the last trace of prog, or Talk Talk seeing how much they can get the synths to sound like animals). Most of the songs charge along, straight out of the gate, with a kickdrum stomp, and pulsing keyboard lines that don’t always need an overt chorus. As usual, Spencer allows himself two or three songs that take a while to find their groove (e.g. 'Bang Your Drum' where his voice postures, throws shapes, skips about, like interpretive dance), but these segments are shorter than on Random Spirit Lover, and serve their purpose well in the context of the album, from which he certainly hasn’t kept back his best writing.
So, what’s it all about? In the absence of a lyric sheet, some fanciful interpretations of the album’s themes abound, online. For instance, 'Language City' presents the clearest condemnation of modernity, technology, and the surveillance society ("eyeballs they float in space") and doesn’t sound optimistic ("all this work / just to tear it down"); to be honest, once you get past the symbolism, you know this stuff, and would be better off hearing that the song in question reminds me of Pulp at their prime. Similarly, 'Grey Estates' has the dystopian vision ("a hundred sad inventions / rot inside the grey estates"), but mostly I’m thinking how awesome it would be if a club played this instead of 'Disco 2000' or 'Common People'. Finally, though, what raises Wolf Parade above all the bands so-far cited is the muscularity of the playing; 'An Animal in your Care' starts like one of the quirky synth-led tunes The Cure used to do, but ends with guitars that growl, like later-Robert Smith at his most Hendrix. Closing track 'Kissing the Beehive' is a multi-part synth epic – again, like Genesis- or Invisible Touch-era Genesis (back when they were bewailing environmental catastrophe), and with "standing on the beach / hands in the sky / watching it all burn” lyrics, like one of Robert Smith’s apocalyptic visions. The difference is, Wolf Parade have a 21st century sensibility letting them know what sounds go together, and at the end of 47 minutes the whole thing’s been so exhilarating, it’s strangely exhausting.
Random Spirit Lover (2007) Jagjaguwar
[09 / 10]
Behold the Gilded Palace of Psychedelia! Finally, Sunset Rubdown are writing / singing / chanting a Kalevala for phased guitar, vintage-keyboards, drums. On the first track, Spencer yelps “this one’s for Maggie!”, and as his bandmates chorus back at him, you realize that there’s a prog-rock opera playing, and you’ve been tricked into listening, but you don’t mind, because you want to know who Maggie is, and you like the fact you’ve entered in medias res: it means you have to fill the gaps in the story yourself. Sure, some of the tracks drift through as much as 5 minutes of murkiness, but others open with a glam-stomp, and somehow most of them reach a glorious climax, and you have no idea what perversion of musical logic got them there (think 'Paranoid Android' / 'Polyethylene' – but don’t think Muse, EVER. Come to think of it, did you see Velvet Goldmine? You could do a lot worse than compare Sunset Rubdown to the Radiohead/Bernard Butler/Roxy Music supergroup that was The Venus in Furs). To be honest, after 9 months listening, I still have no idea what the album’s story is, but I dig the message: that magic & myth are here & now, and that there’s a middle-ground between Goth & Geek that makes it possible to drop lines like "I have lusted after yer-er-her-her-hoo / the way blood-suckers do!" – and get the crowd yelling along to it, sending indie-girls home with love-bites. What’s astonishing is the fluidity with which Spencer charges from image to image; never just slipping in something surreal because it fits the rhyme-scheme (like Joanna Newsom) or because it doesn’t (like doseone of cLOUDDEAD & Subtle). Check this: "He was a man of many nations / With revelations, oh revelations / He wrote a book about the Bible / He wrote a book about men in the sky / He wrote a book about the smell of the winter / And then two… A little less simple to decipher / Saying “I am the water at the foot of the palms, / Or I am sand and wind, and a shitty mirage, / But either way, I’m a man of many nations!” – all of which is only half of one verse, and maybe not persuasive on the page, but believe me: I’ve woken up singing this freakiness.
[08 / 10]
Pholk. Now, there’s a term I haven’t used in a while. Yep, this could be the best “pholk” album since Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump (1999). The themes are much the same, and Boeckner’s obviously sold on the formula that friendly old synth tones and nylon-string guitars can plaintively express how mechanization is choking Nature, even as their retro-ness evokes the 1950s hopes of utopia: that someday we’ll all have hover-cars. There are a couple of significant differences, though, that might pique your interest. Firstly, Dan has one of those rich, older-than-his-years, Michael Stipe-type voices, whereas Jason Lytle has a certain vocal fragility to match his emotional fragility (hence Jed the Malfunctioning Robot – that transparent metaphor for alcoholism – pretty close to the bone, that one). Second, Dan can sing a line about realizing we’re animals "when we saw each other’s bodies", and it’s equal parts Zen, erotic, and faintly nostalgic for the idea humans might be the Chosen Creatures. Perhaps these differences (between Dan and Jason, but also between Dan and a lot of songwriters mixing their acoustic guitars, yearning for Nature, synths, and hatred for the City) has a lot to do with Dan having actually spent time in a commune. “Sing Captain!”, for one, is an optimistic ballad about leaving civilization behind that sounds like he didn’t completely regret the experience. In terms of the unfolding Sun Rub / Wolf Parade story, Plague Park is still a couple of steps away from the magnificence of At Mt Zoomer (2008) but it’s definitely the kind of lower-fi, more laidback rehearsal that’s good enough to keep coming back to, in its own right.
Shut Up, I Am Dreaming (2007) Rough Trade
[08 / 10]
Yes, that is the full title of the record, but in context it’s "shut up, shut up / I am dreaming of places / where lovers have wings", which is the kind of romance that makes sense to this indie-boy. Not much rocking-out on the first album-proper by SR-the-band. 'Stadiums & Shrines' is pretty dramatic: like Ben Hur, the claymation version, but much of the time (and, maybe it’s the album-artwork) this feels like the musical equivalent of David Shrigley – a lo-fi take on myth, mysticism and mortality. On 'The Empty Threats of Little Lord' (over 'Karma Police' chords, if you’re interested), Spencer sniffs "…if I ever hurt you / it will be in self-defence…" He’s got a knack, it seems, for writing characters who belong in cartoons, and at the same time endear you to their tragicomic plight. It’s an essential purchase, of course, but you may want to go for the follow-up, first.
[04 / 10]
Agonizing. Judge this by its cover: an old man drawn in felt-tip by a loon. Whenever I hear records like this, I think that David Thomas (of Pere Ubu) has a lot to answer for: making desperately strange people think that someone out there wants to hear them squawk & warble, over shambolic clatterings that can generously be described as “involving” guitars, bass, and drums. It’s not as easy as it sounds. In an interview, Krug admits that he admires Mercer for releasing "things a lot of people will hate" – so you’re probably wasting your time if you try too hard to like this.
Beast Moans (2006) Jagjaguwar
[06 / 10]
"This record is a testament to friendship…" say the sleeve-notes. Well, I’m glad that three people appreciated it, because it’s a tough one to get through, even though it’s Dan & Spencer from Wolf Parade with Carey Mercer from Frog Eyes (who probably wrote a few too many of the tracks). Half of it’s as good as half the stuff on other WP / SR albums… but that’s only half a reason to check it out. 'This Fire' is gorgeous, and belongs on the next compilation of psychedelic love-songs for the indie-freak in your life.
SUNSET RUBDOWN (Spencer & his Gang): “A Day in the Graveyard” EP (2005), Global Symphonic
[07 / 10]
The debut-proper - by Spencer, solo - was unlistenable, but now we're talking. Lying among broken roses on your lover’s grave… and watching the helicopters overhead. Nice twist. There are no anachronisms in the imagination, which is maybe what Marc Bolan meant by the 'Ballrooms of Mars'. On the fifth track: "You should hear the wind at my window / I said You should hear the wind at my window / It goes woo-oo-woo-oo-woo-oo-oo…" It does; exactly like that. You should hear it and join in – it’s fun.
[08 / 10]
Not the best “#1 Album of the Year” Pitchfork have ever elected, but the ranking was a good sign, right? It’s lazy, I know, given that Isaac Brock produced this, to make a Modest Mouse comparison, but that’s pretty accurate in terms of style and quality, unless you’ve heard Brock’s marginally-weirder-side-project, Ugly Casanova. 'Shine a Light' may be one of the best here, with its chugging guitar, woo-oo backing vocals, and humming keyboards, but it sounds like a demo for several of the better tracks on At Mt Zoomer. That said, final track, 'This Heart’s on Fire' has a kind of heroic masculine swagger and effortless cool that makes you want to see what Dan looks like so you can – I don’t know – grow a beard like him, or smoke his brand of cigarettes, start wearing plaid, what have you. I mean, he doesn’t even bother to sing the first two choruses – the melody’s latent in the drawled slogan"‘…this haaht’s on faah…" – but as the tempo picks up, and the guitars lend more heft to that waspishly insistent keyboard melody, Dan wakes up too, and by the end he’s roaring and rolling around the studio-floor like Iggy.