Monday, April 7, 2008

Swan Lake- Beast Moans

People like to throw around the term "supergroup" as if it actually means anything anymore. Every time a few guys from other bands start a band together you hear that they're a "supergroup." I don't know about you, but the idea of "supergroups" becomes totally unappealing once you've listened to great musicians or artists thrown together at benefit concerts or music festivals. The cold realization is that it takes time for people to get used to each other, and it is exceedingly rare that people who've never collaborated together could produce something substantial on the first try. It's fun to make up dream bands--Hendrix on guitar, John Bonham on drums, that kind of thing--but the truth is they play entirely different styles and would take awhile to either learn to play in each other's framework or create something wholly new.

So, then, Swan Lake, which combines Dan Bejar (solo artist under the moniker Destroyer and the secret weapon of the New Pornographers), Carey Mercer (brilliant howler of Frog Eyes), and Spencer Krug (sometime member of Frog Eyes, main force behind Sunset Rubdown, and a significant creative half of Wolf Parade). At first glance this line up wouldn't make sense to anyone who isn't familiar with Destroyer's work. After releasing the synth/keyboard based Your Blues album, Dan Bejar decided to tour with Frog Eyes as his backing band, transforming the orchestrated and synthetic affectations of the album into a rocking and rollicking barnstormer. If you've ever seen Bob Dylan live in the past few years and witnessed how his band transforms the songs into new and fantastic shapes, then you have an idea of what the Frog Eyes pairing was like. Anyway, Bejar, Mercer, and Krug enjoyed the tour so much they recorded an EP under the Destroyer name, Notorious Lightning and Other Works, and made plans to record an album together. Thus, a year or so later, the Swan Lake project was born.

Where exactly does Beast Moans fall on the scale between "disparate musicians taking turns playing in each other's style" and "creating something unlike anything the three have produced before"?? Well, more of the former than the latter. Imagine me saying that with a tinge of disappointment and you've got the general crux of the issue. Beast Moans is a bit of a slippery album because I feel like Dan Bejar and Spencer Krug make better collaborators than either of them with Carey Mercer. This is no knock on Mercer or Frog Eyes, but that band's style is so distinctive and unhinged that one gets the feeling that here Bejar and Krug help make Mercer's songs more coherent and traditional while he, in turn, makes their's more unpredictable and odd. Consider 'The Partisan But He's Got To Know', which is just a typically great Frog Eyes song until Bejar and Mercer trade lines toward the end, adding much needed flavor syrup to the reverby Slushie that is Frog Eyes. Metaphorically speaking. On the other hand, consider album closer 'Shooting Rockets' which, though written by Bejar, is an apocalyptic dirge buried beneath dense guitar soundscapes and clattering percussion. Compare this to the version of the song that appears on Bejar's recent Destroyer album Trouble In Dreams in a cleaned up and much more enjoyable form.

Some new ideas do appear on Beast Moans, and promise greater things on the inevitable, all-but-released next album. After Bejar's magnificent 'The Freedom', the song segues into 'Petersburg, Liberty Theater, 1914', which has a title like a Frog Eyes song but belongs to each member equally. Over a repetitive drum beat, glistening guitars, and downright beautiful keyboards, Krug and Bejar harmonize very well before trading off vocals to Mercer, who is commended for singing in a fashion somewhat unlike his usual style, much calmer and almost speak-singing.'Pleasure Vessels', though Mercer penned, switches between reverb drenched walls of sound and clean guitar chording, a mood piece as much as a song.

It's always hard for me to review a "supergroup" album and not declare a MVP, so to speak. Were I forced, the easy victor on this album is Spencer Krug. Though we all loved the Wolf Parade album and Sunset Rubdown's Shut Up I Am Dreaming, he really proves himself one of the best and most consistent songwriters of the Canadian indie scene with 'All Fires' and 'Are You Swimming In Her Pools?' which combine his love of repeating everyday phrases with poetic/romantic imagery. The latter presents such gems as "please is not a word I ever said quietly" and "I hope you find your mother there" alongside the flat-out amazing second 'verse' which begins with the following three lines:

Are you running up her riverbeds and navigating long fingers of a hand?
Because fingers make the hand
And rivers make the land

I want to give some credit to Mercer and Bejar, but their best works lies elsewhere as far as I'm concerned, and I feel like their best contributions to the album are still overshadowed by Krug. It's true that they probably pushed Krug to this level and/or helped him realize his songs better than he could have with his other bands, but one gets the distinct impression they didn't bring their "A" game to the proceedings. Props to Bejar, though, for managing anything as good as 'A Venue Called Rubella' while he's also busy dividing his output between Destroyer and New Pornographers.

Though I do genuinely enjoy this album, I also feel that the next thing they release will be even better. Other than Bejar, who played it safe on his last two releases to diminishing results (I'm still baffled that people like Challengers by the New Pornographers so much), Mercer and Krug seemed to take the lessons of this collaboration to heart. Both of the last albums by Frog Eyes and Sunset Rubdown were phenomenal, and represented great artistic steps--if not a leap--for each. Whatever the future holds for the Swan Lake project, rest assured that its first product, Beast Moans, is well worth seeking out for fans of any of the three minds behind it.