One could make the case that the first decade of the 21st century, at least as far as the music world is concerned, saw the emergence of Canada as a major force. Between bands like The Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, The New Pornographers, and Wolf Parade, Canada has inarguably been one of the prime movers in the indie rock arena. Interestingly, a lot of these bands branch into or out of other side projects/bands that are just as good if not better than the "main" bands, depending on the listener's sensibilities. One of the minds behind Wolf Parade, Spencer Krug, is involved in 3 other bands: Swan Lake, Frog Eyes, and Sunset Rubdown. This last band has always existed in the shadow of the other bands, in their early years being compared heavily to Frog Eyes and lately to Wolf Parade.
Around the time of 2007's Random Spirit Lover, I began to take Sunset Rubdown seriously as not a side project for Spencer Krug but another outlet for his prodigious and prolific talents. And while I thought his contributions to this year's Swan Lake album were not up to his usual level of quality, I now wonder if he saved all of his best material for Dragonslayer, the new Sunset Rubdown album, because it is, I daresay, the best thing he's ever done in any of his bands. I have been so taken with this album that I bought everything I could get my hands on by the band, which is something I never do. After hearing this album I am an official convert to the Church Of Rubdownology.
How exactly did this band surpass the mighty Wolf Parade, who I always thought of as Krug's focus?? Well, it's a combination of taking the lessons learned on Random Spirit Lover and Spencer Krug's gift for songwriting. On the aforementioned release, Sunset Rubdown crafted a dense-but-rewarding 'album for people who love albums', full of songs that blended into each other, songs in non-standard forms that had no obvious structures. When choruses or melodies appeared, they were often in fresh ways or unexpected moments. Songs would have two or three different hooks in fairly different sections such that you had to listen to the album as a whole to milk all the good stuff out. This same thing takes place on Dragonslayer but to an even more successful degree. It is more melodic and addictive, too, and brings to the fore something that was always a part of Krug's output that I never noticed: his self referential, self remaking aesthetic.
In listening through all of Sunset Rubdown's material, you'll find songs, melodic ideas, lyrics, and characters that appear a few times. It's something he possibly learned from the similarly self referential Dan Bejar (who is also 1/3 of Swan Lake with Krug) but done to an even greater degree, such as the three different versions of 'Snakes Got A Leg' and the two of 'Stadiums And Shrines.' But the ties between Krug's more recent work with Wolf Parade and Swan Lake is not like how Sunset Rubdown's Shut Up I Am Dreaming fleshed out Snake's Got A Leg. Rather, it's more like echoes and hints to Random Spirit Lover, enhancing and intertwining both albums in the process. There is also a re-imagining (and I would say an improvement upon) of 'Paper Lace', which was on this year's Swan Lake album. But I digress. The important thing here is the music and not all of these interesting but inessential ideas that float around it.
Dragonslayer is bookended by its strongest songs: 'Silver Moons' is a new Krug classic, with a lyrical delivery that slips around the beat brilliantly while 'Dragon's Lair' reminds one of the similarly epic album closing 'Kissing The Beehive' from Wolf Parade's At Mount Zoomer though seems half as long and does twice as much. In between are songs that never get old due to their linearity and complexity; as with Random Spirit Lover, in order to get to the hooks and "choruses" you have to listen to the entire album. Dragonslayer sticks more to the catchy and melodic side of things, so the rewards come faster. 'You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II)' opens with rhythmic guitar scratching and a tribal drum groove that is waylaid by videogamey keyboards; the magnificent 'Black Swan' has a minimalist percussion section with Krug's vocals that bursts into a full on band section before collapsing back into eerie atmospherics and percussion and back again. Unlike Random Spirit Lover, which took a few listens and some patience to become hooked on, Dragonslayer is immediately great but only gets better and better with every listen. And as ever, Krug's majestic, poignant lyrics burst with images and poetry, from "confetti floats away like dead leaves in the wagon's wake" ('Silver Moons'), "you are a fast explosion and I'm the embers" ('Nightingale December Song'), to the twisting "my heart is a king/where the king is a heart/my heart is king/the kind of hearts" ('Black Swan'). Everywhere Krug and Co. continue their art-pop experiments with a spiky and bombastic mix of keyboards, guitars, percussion, and vocals.
Awhile back I wrote a somewhat useless and embarrassingly overblown review of Wolf Parade's At Mount Zoomer. Well, I feel even more strongly about Dragonslayer. It has made Sunset Rubdown my new "favorite band ever!!" and handily put them into the running for album of the year alongside Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest and Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavillion. Dragonslayer is rare: an album that is immediately good but gets better with more listens; an album that has the proper ratio of art/experimentation to pop/catchiness; a singular work, standing on its own, that nevertheless recalls and echoes other works from the band's discography (and Spencer Krug's in general). Highly recommended.