Sunset Rubdown: Dragonslayer

[24 June 2009]

By Dan Raper

The guitar lick that opened “The Mending of the Gown”, the start to 2007’s critically acclaimed but popularly underrated Random Spirit Lover, introduced what became a wonderful coalescence—Spencer Krug’s bottomless well of creativity with an overpowering full band orchestration. Together those songs made as strong a case for Krug as first rank indie rock songwriter as has yet been made. Last year, when the most well-known of Krug’s many musical projects, Wolf Parade, released their sophomore long-player, he showed a more sinister side while retaining the yelped melodies that first distinguished the group. Just a few months ago, the indefatigable Krug had a further triumph with Swan Lake’s Enemy Mine. For Krug, it’s less going strength-to-strength as accruing, osmosis like, an overlapping pool of diamonds-and-pearls-quality ideas. This isn’t entirely incidental—as we’ll see, inter-album and inter-group dialogue is key to understanding Krug’s ever expanding oeuvre.

Over the course of their career, Sunset Rubdown are getting, as a band, more slick. Random Spirit Lover piled idea on idea and sound on sound, now billowing out into prog overdrive, now suddenly scaling back to gentle intimacy. Dragonslayer has a similar textural range but seems somehow less obviously ambitious. It’s neither an obviously better nor obviously worse album than its predecessor; but different enough that this set of songs feels fresh in its own way. “Idiot Heart”, the big first single, may be anomalous in the extent to which it embraces dance music. The song’s a surging anthem, reminiscent in its bass-and-pots beat of the Rapture, though more relaxed; by the third or fourth listen, those odd melodic choices finally make sense. The whole thing is celebratory and propulsive in the best way.

The other territory covered on Dragonslayer, though, is more recognizable in more ways than one. “Paper Lace” might seem familiar—in fact, it was on Swan Lake’s album from this year. The version that appears here is less playful but more declarative, bringing together shards of guitar into a bass-led stomp filled out with shimmering keyboard and guitar. In the background, after the song’s over, you can hear Krug saying, “That’s as good as it’ll get.” Matters of taste aside, it’s difficult to argue with that sentiment. Then there’s “You Go on Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II)”, which if it references “Trumpet, Trumpet, Toot, Toot!” off Random Spirit Lover does so in some oblique, clear-to-Krug-only way. No matter, the song’s an absolute highlight, building an epic prog edifice from aquatic stomp, masking real gentility, “I would like to just follow you a while.”

The criticism of Krug—that his music can be exhausting to follow—is sometimes true. In a way. That is, the more you concentrate to unpack the layers and intersecting structures of a Sunset Rubdown song, the more lost you’re likely to get. And especially on their earlier work, the band piled these layers on seemingly endlessly. However, for a casual listener there’s so much to momentarily delight that you end up picking out one thing during one listen and another the next. The upshot is, even though the songs are fully fleshed and structurally complex, its really accessible, too.

For every abstruse musical shift, there’s a snippet of singalong melody. And for every surprise, there’s a delight—call it an album of surprising/delightful things: the shuffleboard introduction to “Nightingale/December Song” or the verse as it feints towards line’s end. The twists and turns as songs burgeon out of its pop shells into something darker and less directed. Now, Krug’s not the only songwriter reclaiming prog’s expansive discussion for a new generation—Nick Thorburn, for example, does something similar with Islands. But nobody’s doing it quite as successfully or at least, as consistently. Nobody’s claiming those Nintendo midis as confidently; nobody repeats refrains with such theatrical aplomb. (A standout is “It’s time for a bigger kind of kill”, in the swan song “Dragon’s Lair”).

For all its layered structures, Dragonslayer has a starry-eyed innocence about it; this may be a large part of its appeal. Without the spit and polish of Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown has quietly become a project just as serious and just as worthy of attention. Without quite understanding how he does it, Krug’s music makes you, once listened through, want to start over immediately. Call it surprising/delightful, or call it thrilling/glorious. Either way, Dragonslayer‘s pretty great.

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