July 20, 2010

Wolf Parade: Expo 86

Wolf Parade's 2005 debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is a masterpiece. This statement has to preface any review of their current music because it (the debut record) is undoubtedly going to be the barometer by which all of their current releases will be measured. I first saw Wolf Parade perform in 2006 with my then college dorm-mate in Providence, RI. I remember thinking that they performed with a listless urgency, maybe like happily-buzzed welders, aware of the danger, the weight and emotional resonance of their art, but understanding that it would only bear that weight if they flaunted it and threatened to let it all break apart. That, I suppose, is what rock n' roll is all about.

After the success of Apologies to the Queen Mary, Wolf Parade fractured somewhat. The band's two driving forces, Dan Boeckner (guitar/vocals) and Spencer Krug (piano/vocals) spent periods of time on side projects: Boeckner embraced his neo-Springsteen pop sensibilities and formed the band Handsome Furs, while Krug descended into more literary, avant-garde projects like Sunset Rubdown, Moonface, and Swan Lake.

I will do my best to spare you the lexical "who knows who" meanderings of the Western Canadian Indie Rock Circuit from this point on. You know what wikipedia is, if you're interested, look it all up there. There's probably a flow chart or something.

Following ATTQM, Wolf Parade released the somewhat meager, "has-its-moments" sophomore effort (NB: The phrase "sophomore effort" is obligatory in any decent music review. Also "pop sensibility." Write that down.) At Mount Zoomer. Loosely (very loosely) based on Jonathan Carroll's novel Kissing The Beehive, the album saw Krug and Boeckner depart from their true collaborative songwriting style in favor of their own unique voices, undoubtedly strengthened by their individual successes in side projects. This was a disappointment for some after the lightning in a bottle collaborative nature of ATTQM, but what really doomed the album was the painstaking self-production, which left the final cut of the album simply too compressed and chilly. ATTQM's charming, somewhat lackluster production (done by Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse) made the album a bit of an easter egg hunt. The lyrical content was often mysterious, crafting its own progressive mythology, and the quality of the recording reflected the overall themes; it was hurried, urgent, and sometimes just obfuscating enough to render the message clear. At Mount Zoomer, by comparison, is simply too clear.

That being said, it does have its moments: Krug's "California Dreamer" explores the sinister, Stephen King-esque themes surrounding small towns, aging, and isolation ("I'll be around, I'll be around, I'll be around./ Like a teenager in town."), and Boeckner's "The Grey Estates" is a solid tune about modernity and, more specifically, and entirely in my own opinion, probably about Grey Gardens: "Let the needle on the compass swing./ Let the iron in your heart's blood ring./ Strike up the band as the ship goes down,/ and if it's loud enough, it will erase the sound/ of one hundred thousand sad inventions./ Let them rot inside the grey estates." The final track, a cathartic, eleven minute anthem "Kissing The Beehive" comes closest to the collaborative magic of ATTQM, but when the sophomore record plays through again, you find yourself skipping too many tracks.

Which brings us to 2010's EXPO 86, named for a World's Fair held in Vancouver in 1986 that both Krug and Boeckner attended as children. Opening with a frenetic Krug's staggering vibrato ("...I was a dreamcatcher hanging in the window of a minivan,/ parked along the water's edge;/ I'd say that I was all alone."), we're immediately back in more familiar territory, though not entirely sure where that territory might be located. In all, the record surprises. Boeckner's "Yulia" is pretty much "Space Oddity" from the perspective of a cosmonaut, but it's surprisingly moving. Krug's closing, celebratory "Cave-O-Sapien" modulates to a hopeful major scale, but is largely about the trials of living with a drug addicted friend ("And while you're leaning deep into the smoke of those two sticks you keep rubbing together/ I keep thinking about how bad it's gonna burn./ And all the people I loved back home,/ who I loved, and love,/ that you turned on./ People just offering shelter from the wind..."). In terms of production, Boeckner's guitars sound thankfully messier, and the mix just feels right, overall. The days of Boeckner/Krug true collaborations may be over, but we get the sense that the band simply doesn't want to try to outdo what they did with ATTQM. At the same time, we'd like to see them try.

I've accepted that we're never going to regain the magic of Apologies to the Queen Mary. It was a record made in a special time, in a special place, and those singular elements present of course just put the whole package beyond compare, but EXPO 86 is a good record from a good band that continues to grow, and I hope they continue to surprise me.

Wolf Parade: EXPO 86: 8.0/10

Wolf Parade is signed to Sub Pop Records, and this is their website.

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