Crate-Digging: Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

(Sub Pop, 2008)

I’ve mentioned my undying enthusiasm for Wolf Parade’s debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, elsewhere on this site, so it should come as no surprise that I greatly anticipated its follow-up, At Mount Zoomer, with all the eagerness of a child on Christmas Eve. Four years between records is a long time to wait in the indie rock world. I mean, sure, we were sated somewhat by side projects Sunset Rubdown, Handsome Furs, and Swan Lake (more on them in a moment), but the prospect of the full, four-headed beast’s return was a different thing altogether. In fact, the side projects kind of solidified the notion that Wolf Parade is more of a super-group in itself – and how often does it happen that the super-group releases its debut before its separate Voltronic parts? And yet there we are – by the time of Zoomer’s release, Wolf Parade was, for all intents and purposes, a bona fide super-group in the eyes of their fans as well as the indie music community.

Anticipation is a funny thing – the more you ratchet it up, the bigger the potential letdown. When I first heard At Mount Zoomer (named after the band’s recording studio, by the way), I was disappointed. Removed almost three years from that initial release, I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

First impression – it’s so difficult to connect with! Especially for the first-timers. And Wolf Parade was not a band I was used to having to deeply parse in order to extract any pleasure. Perhaps I was spoiled by Apologies – its immediacy, its deft handling of subjects, its killer hooks – all leading to an instant gratification that I was foolish to believe could last. It was light, full of energy, and hit all the right emotional notes. I can still go back to it and enjoy it without any reservation, or any inclination to skip past any track. But Zoomer was dour by comparison – perhaps weighted by ambition, execution, or a lack of focus, there was a millstone around its neck bending it ever lower to the surface of its psychological pond. It felt like the band wanted to keep you at arm’s length, like it wanted to hoard its secrets and only reluctantly offer glimpses into its psyche. And I mainly blame Spencer Krug for this.

By nature, the band features two songwriters, Krug and Dan Boeckner, each with his unique style, yet somehow entirely complimentary of one another. Piano man Krug’s baroque Bowie-isms counteract guitarist Boeckner’s Springsteen and New Order worship, and by sequencing their songs one after the other throughout (for the most part), we’re able to grasp better how the two work together. Zoomer; compared to Apologies, is a much more collaborative songwriting effort, even though there’s only one track, “Kissing the Beehive,” where that collaboration is obvious. So this new working relationship between the bandmates should energize them, wouldn’t you think? Well, the problem is that the energy is veiled, in many cases, and songs limp from the starting line only to blossom (if they even do) at midway points or later. And the reason I blame Krug for this is that the songs where he takes the lead, “his” songs, are the main culprits. Boeckner unfortunately follows suit on a track or two, but he avoids miasma for the most part. Album opener “Soldier’s Grin” is a great example – despite pleasant synthesizer squirts giving way to a swinging guitar line, the track doesn’t really get going until the chorus, and maybe it feels that it hasn’t opened up as far as it would like, so it gallops double time after a while. The more I listen to it, though, the more I like it. His “Language City” follows a similar pattern, and it’s similarly engrossing. “The Grey Estates,” the most upbeat song here and also the biggest gulp of fresh air, is the only reminder of the band’s breezier past, as a piano and organ race guitar downbeats, mirroring the 1980s nostalgia for the 1950s in its execution.

But what to do with Spencer Krug? “Call It a Ritual” is easy to like in a paranoid, minor-key way, its sub-three-minute runtime ushering it to the door before it becomes a party pooper. It’s slinky; the barroom piano infuses it with a glance-over-the-shoulder paranoia. But Krug’s other offerings are much less fun, at least at first, especially considering his penchant to retreat into ugly fantasies and masochistic relational issues. “Bang Your Drum” sums up my feelings for the album – “Do they beat that drum to get you back home, or do they beat it to keep you away?” Seemingly unsure himself, Krug’s “California Dreamer,” along with “Bang Your Drum” and Boeckner’s “Fine Young Cannibals,” take their sweet time before offering anything remotely hook-worthy, and when the choruses come, they blister and shine and then collapse right back into the murk. But the fact is, we’re made to wait for the payoff – patience is key. It can be frustrating if you’re unable to get past that. “Animal in Your Care” is probably Krug’s worst offender in this manner, as it has the least palatable, sluggish, whiny opening, yet changes into a Crazy Horse-esque stomper halfway through, completely redeeming it.

(Speaking of Crazy Horse, album closer “Kissing the Beehive” is Wolf Parade’s longest song at 10:25, and the only one on which Dan and Spencer sing lead at different times. It was referred to on pre-album-release bootlegs as “Crazy Horse” – appropriate, as it’s essentially the band’s “Down By the River.”)

So, the question is, why? What happened between Apologies and Zoomer that triggered this inward-facing stylistic switcheroo? At first I wondered if it was side-project burnout. After Apologies, Spencer released two albums as Sunset Rubdown and one as a member of Swan Lake. (I still submit that Random Spirit Lover, Sunset Rubdown’s 2007 release, is just as inscrutably distant as Krug’s Zoomer contributions.) Dan released Handsome Furs’ debut, Plague Park, on which it sounded like he wasn’t sure what direction he wanted to take. It seemed like the two songwriters were stretching their creativity thin, and while Wolf Parade’s reunion for the recording of this album should have strengthened the resolve of all members and reenergized them, it seemed to do the opposite.

But with time, I think I’ve digested that At Mount Zoomer was simply an experimental period that the band needed to go through, to work out their nascent prog and classic rock leanings on record. Subsequent albums – Sunset Rubdown’s Dragonslayer, Handsome Furs’ Face Control, and Wolf Parade’s Expo 86 – all improved upon those that came before them, and reassured fans like me. Wolf Parade doesn’t have to majestically fill every stadium with their sound, even if that’s how they’ve conditioned us to respond to their releases. And even though this record is going to get a lot less personal airplay, it’s worth exploring, as almost every song has something unique and interesting to offer. Here’s a fun little exercise too – track down the Pardon My Blues live compilation that a blogger put together, speculating on the tracks that would make up At Mount Zoomer. There are four that didn’t make it, but at least three maybe should have (“Bed’s Exploding,” “Things I Don’t Know,” “Gonna Love You Like I Do” – “A Day in the Life” was originally an Atlas Strategic song [Dan’s old band] that Wolf Parade would cover live). It’s interesting to hear how the songs were fleshed out live before they were laid to tape.

RIYL: Sunset Rubdown, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Echo and the Bunnymen

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