Whatever your opinion of At Mount Zoomer (I've gone back and forth on it a lot myself), I don't think anyone would disagree that it's unfocused and uneven. No, not in the quality of the songs; rather I mean that it plays like a double album that was trimmed down to a single album. The tracks are extremely varied in terms of both song length and sound, and since the album was recorded in two different sessions at two different locations, this uneven, disjointed feel makes perfect sense. Expo 86 is the direct opposite of this: like Frog Eyes's excellent new album, Paul's Tomb: A Triumph, it was recorded mostly live to tape with the band playing in the same room. Co-leaders Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug have turned in a batch of tunes that have relatively even lengths and aesthetics, like they're finally writing for the band and not themselves. Not only does this album sound much more unified as a result, there's also the matter of all of the songs having a mid-to-up-tempo pace, making Expo 86 perfect for driving or grooving to with friends. It kicks off with 'Cloud Shadow On The Mountain' which takes no time in setting the barnstorming tone of the record, as if the drum beat and vocals were already going and you have to jump unto a moving bus. The energy and volume don't dip much from here all the way through to the closing 'Cave-O-Sapien', a song that reminds us that six minutes can seem like two if handled properly. As a whole, Expo 86 really does give off the heat of a maximalist, kick-out-the-jams live album with nary a ballad or quiet moment to be found.
“Maximalist” is an adjective that at least Boeckner now identifies with this band, at least according to an interview he did with Pitchfork a couple months ago. Thankfully there's a much stronger focus and sense of tightness to this band's brand of maximalism, so those who disagree with my recent review of Broken Social Scene's Forgiveness Rock Record should check this one out for an example of dense layers of music and vocals done properly. True, on first listen, it does feel like Wolf Parade have two guitarists, two or three keyboardists, two drummers, one bassist, and two vocalists on every single song. 'Two Men In New Tuxedos' and 'Yulia' in particular are nearly overwhelming with how many things your ears try to pay attention to at the same time. Unlike with Broken Social Scene, though, what initially sounds like cacophony and unnecessary elements soon gives way to intricacies and complexities of melody, rhythm, and texture. As Boeckner put it in the aforementioned interview, “[t]here's a lot of melodies going on within the songs...At any given time, there's five or six counter-melodies running against each other, with the vocals kind of fighting for supremacy.”
Since Expo 86 has an even stronger focus on instrumental chops and full-band interplay than At Mount Zoomer, one could dub it a jammier effort. Indeed, this album does possess a sense of openness and expanse that is superficially close to classic rock and/or jam bands. It's reminiscent of Wilco's Sky Blue Sky, but less traditionally rooted. Boeckner turns in consistently crisp guitar solos, but they don't come off as solos, and Krug's now-patented flights of fancy and counterpoint on keyboards and synths are as dramatic and yet grounded as ever. Meanwhile, stuff like the extended “ooh hoo hoo” vocal outro to 'What Did My Lover Say? (It Always Had To Go This Way)' nail home what I'm trying to get at. This is an album that sometimes spools off into tangents, brightening the corners of the room as it wanders about, but it never strikes me as jammy or prog rock show boat-y.
At this point it's clear that the immediacy and nervous energy of their debut was a a fluke rather than the establishment of the Wolf Parade aesthetic. Put onApologies To The Queen Mary now, and you'll hear a group of guys who weren't quite sure what they wanted to sound like and hadn't quite figured out their own identities inside or outside of the band. Expo 86, then, is a band in the full bloom of their confidence, crafting songs that don't instantly stop you dead in your tracks, like, say, 'Sons And Daughters Of Hungry Ghosts' did, but do reveal themselves to be just as potent and addictive if patience is one of your virtues (even if it's only in regards to music). Those still wishing Wolf Parade will strip down their sound and song lengths need not apply; those of us who are in it for the long haul with these guys, embracing if not celebrating their changes and development, will find plenty to savor.
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5