Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Swan Lake- Enemy Mine

I had a small twinge of delight when the collaborative side project/supergroup Swan Lake was first announced. I was still new to the work of the three musicians involved--Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes), Daniel Bejar (Destroyer), and Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade/Sunset Rubdown)--but the idea of them working together was, dare I say, exciting. I didn't know at the time that Spencer Krug was a sometime member of Frog Eyes, and that Frog Eyes had toured behind Destroyer and subsequently recorded an EP with him, Notorious Lightning And Other Works, so while there was some recorded evidence of the three as a creative force it was but a bite size chunk. Excitement and anticipation aside, Swan Lake's debut, Beast Moans, too often sounded like each member had brought songs from their main projects and let the other two add bits and pieces. It's an inconsistent, imperfect album but one well worth seeking out for fans of any of the three musicians. The take away from Beast Moans is that it never truly gelled into a project with a standalone identity. It never sounds like its own thing whereas other 'supergroups' do, if that makes sense.

Enemy Mine mostly succeeds at finally making Swan Lake into something other than "the other two playing in the style of whoever wrote the song." On almost every song, Mercer, Bejar, and Krug make better use of the gifts of the others, whether it be to bring their unique vocals along as a foil or duet of sorts or to coat the songs with their stylistic flourishes and trademarks. There may be no peaks as high as Beast Moan's 'Are You Swimming In Her Pools?' or 'A Venue Called Rubella' but Enemy Mine also sounds like a Swan Lake album and not an album of 'Sunset Rubdown with some Frog Eyes and Destroyer', 'Frog Eyes with some Sunset Rubdown and Destroyer', or 'Destroyer with some Frog Eyes and Sunset Rubdown.'

Enemy Mine falls just short of the masterpiece I think these three are capable of together, but it does improve on their debut in all the ways that matter. In fact, it's surprising and fresh for one reason: Mercer manages to turn in the best material. He was just sort of there doing his thing on Beast Moans and he didn't fit as well as Krug and Bejar did together. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but on Enemy Mine I sense that he stepped up his game. His songs strike me as the most committed; that is to say, they sound the most like what I imagined Swan Lake would sound like, as a new sound or set of ideas instead of the aforementioned 'two guys backing one in that one guy's style.' That Mercer opens and closes the album is a clear signal to the listener. It allows him to set the tone for and put the period on Enemy Mine. 'Spanish Gold, 2044', a swaggering, unhinged stroll, juxtaposes Mercer's free form ravings against Krug's worldless "oh oh ohs." Bejar's 'Ballad Of a Swan Lake, Or, Daniel's Song' takes his self referential myth-making to a new place, letting each Swan Lake member take a turn in a rowdy finish that kind of sounds like 'Row Row Row Your Boat' but way weirder and more inebriated. Meanwhile, Krug's best moment is inarguably 'A Hand At Dusk', which starts off sounding like a solo piece for piano but works in a synthesizer crescendo that, well, sounds like the sun going down, bridging the gap toward an ending that fits in both Mercer and Bejar but doesn't sound merely like Krug took a Sunset Rubdown piano ballad and had them sing something arbitrarily. Mercer may have arrived at the 'Swan Lake sound' a bit earlier and with better results, but with these two songs Krug and Bejar show they're catching on quick.

Still, it's Mercer's closing 'Warlock Psychologist' that successfully puts Enemy Mine into 'near excellent' status. Like his best work, it is both two minutes too long and yet could satisfactorily go on for another two. He and Krug end up trading off on the lyric 'Dotty's being taken away in the car' while Bejar does his patented 'I'm just going to sing syllables' thing before the song reaches a climactic ending with all three members singing something while a burbling keyboard draws the curtains closed.

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