[9 August 2011]
This guy Spencer Krug loves making records. (I will take my Pulitzer now, journalists.) Reviewers are, in fact, contractually obligated to mention Krug’s prolific output when discussing his oeuvre—and, in keeping with the man’s increasingly fanciful lyrical work and sky-high earnestness, we’re also required to say oeuvre in our most nasal, wilting, sweater-tied-around-our-shoulders accent. Krug begs this attention to detail and to history because he’s a rare breed, a songwriter interested in creating his own lexicon—or, if we can also be earnest for a moment, his own world. For example, when Krug references lyrics from his own older songs in newer compositions, he’s doing it less out of egocentrism and more out of a desire for continuity, for the added depth and nuanced portraiture that comes when a piece of artwork taps into a greater history. So, when Krug, on the opening track from an album by yet another new project, sings about a flame that gives a “terrible glimpse of a shark / within your idiot heart”, longtime fans will smile at the name-drop in those last two words. In other words, knowing “Idiot Heart” by Krug’s Sunset Rubdown makes listening to Krug’s Moonface—this new project—more gratifying, as a fan can feel part of the in-crowd in catching the references while also basking in the distinct thrills of exploring a new neighborhood in Krugdom.
Moonface, Krug’s first solo moniker since the early days of Sunset Rubdown, made its official debut with 2010’s Dreamland EP: marimba and shit-drums. That record hued close to its title, consisting of a single twenty-minute long song played on the marimba, Krug’s passion of the moment, with a backing drum track. (The drums really weren’t so terrible, if we’re setting things straight.) While Dreamland presumably sold far fewer copies than, say, a Wolf Parade record, it marked one of the highpoints of Krug’s career, a chance for him to show his compositional chops, his eagerness to take risks and push himself forward, his uncanny ability to create and maintain a particular mood (on Dreamland, a sense of ambiguous dread) through his vivid, surrealistic, idiosyncratic lyrics. Though attentive Krugians will note that the name “Moonface” first appeared on a limited run Sunset Rubdown 7” called Introducing Moonface, Krug’s decision to record under the moniker itself seemed like a one-off move.
And then, all of a sudden, we have Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped, all 40 minutes of it. The continuity here is simple enough, as this new Moonface album also marks Krug’s experimentation with a new instrument and was written and recorded by Krug alone. In a broader sense, it continues the pattern of Krug being Krug: layered, dense compositions; lyrics that dip their toes into the surreal; that croaking, wonderfully evocative voice. It also marks Krug’s first real misstep in—well, his first real misstep.
Some critics contend that Wolf Parade, Krug’s most famous band, works so well because Krug has a proper foil in co-leader Dan Boeckner. Boeckner—anthemic, fist-pumping, Springsteen-respecting—keeps Krug in check, they say. That could be true; it’s impossible to know what Wolf Parade’s songwriting process really involved, but it’s fair to say that Krug saw diminishing returns with the band while Boeckner saw a rise in his stock (compare Boeckner’s face-melting “Pobody’s Nerfect” with Krug’s lurching “Two Men in New Tuxedos”; Dan’s “Agents of Love” versus Krug’s “Semi-Precious Stone”; “Language City” with anything else on At Mount Zoomer). Now that Wolf Parade has supposedly called it quits, perhaps Krug is celebrating his liberation with Organ Music.
Or maybe he, like most musicians, just benefits from having someone else in the room. I’ll let you make your own organ/masturbatory puns, and then I’ll stop you, because it’s not that bad (and shame on you). There are real highs, here. “Return to the Violence of the Ocean Floor” swells and bounces with the best of Krug, sounding something like a demo for the next Sunset Rubdown record, with its swirling keys and lyrical fixation on music-making itself. Its refrain, “You should have been a writer / You should have played guitar”, sounds the opposite chord as Sunset Rubdown’s “Trumpet, Trumpet” suites, where Krug—or his narrator—expresses his distrust of musicians and their nomadic habits. “Fast Peter” surprises with a straight-forward (!) narrative about a friend who decides to chase love to a new town: “They only talk on their computers / And Peter said he wants to stay a good guy in the world / So, Peter’s leaving town / Who even does that anymore!” In fact, reading the lyrics for the song—and most of the words here—on Organ Music’s liner notes feels less like reading lyrics and more like reading flash fiction, a blend of micro-narratives and lyrical, imagistic passages. Krug knows how to turn a phrase. Check “Loose Heart=Loose Plan” and its tongue-twisting chorus, “You said, ‘Come on / Let’s kill / Individual will!’ / I said, ‘I will, / I will / Oh, I really, really will.’”
But for all the feats of the pen shown here, the music doesn’t stack up. Left to his own devices—or, possibly, to the devices of his chosen instrument here—Krug’s ambitious compositions often feel merely over-inflated. They get all puffed up in their king-sized running times, but then they have nowhere to go. Krug can layer melody upon melody with the organ, but once he’s filled “Whale Song (Song Instead of a Kiss)” to the brim with drama and tension, he’s left with no pushpin to make it all explode in the end. It’s worth noting that when Krug performs these songs live, they sound much bigger, full of bass and life, hulking and swaying in a manner not remotely captured by the mix here. Without that sense of dynamism, Organ Music feels too much like a mere exercise by the end of its thirty-seven minutes—a melancholic, dark, interesting experiment, but one without conclusive results. Fortunately, he likely has plenty else cooking up in the lab already.