Sonically, there isn’t much left of the Wolf Parade that gave us 2005’s Apologies to the Queen Mary. That was an album of lean, brooding pop songs that managed to have an infectious energy even as they championed the band’s melodic and lyrical eccentricities. Produced by Isaac Brock, the album was often compared to his records with Modest Mouse, but in retrospect there was something much more subtle, much more in control about Wolf Parade then. And it was that control, and their ear for angular riffs, that made them a unique and exciting new band.
At Mount Zoomer, the band’s follow up, actually kept the band’s tight sound, even as the compositions themselves stretched out — and yes, unraveled some as the record went on. But the guitars were sharp, the keys gentle in their layering, and the hooks still came in bunches. And even though you could hear Spencer Krug’s proggy tendencies — which he used to reserve solely for his work in Sunset Rubdown — starting to intrude, Wolf Parade was still very much the driving center of Krug’s and fellow frontman Dan Boeckner’s musical world.
Now we’ve arrived at album three, Expo 86, and, well, it’s all starting to run together. Not necessarily in a bad way, but certainly in a way that limits the impact of these songs. If Wolf Parade is the indie rock band — and many seem to think so — then Expo 86 proves that, though not in the way they’d probably like. While it’s a decent record all the way through, it also shows the excess of noise, the sonic expansion, and the lack of editing or control that seem to be permeating indie rock today. And though this trend may come under the guise of a throwback to some mid-’90s college rock feel, what we’re really seeing are a whole bunch of people who can make a sound, but can’t always write a song.
Now, Wolf Parade show on Expo 86 that, even when they’re not at their best, they’re still steady, and if there’s one thing that keeps this album afloat, it is its quick pulse. The album opens with the charge of unadorned drums under Spencer Krug’s tense warble, dropping us head first into the driving “Cloud Shadow on the Morning”. It’s a striking song because it takes their knack for tight riffs and expands it effectively. Krug’s keys twist around Broeckner’s cascading guitars, and the song crumbles nicely into dissonance in the middle before coming back stronger and tighter in the end. It’s a fine marriage of the band’s straighter rock sound and Krug’s side-band theatrics.
Everything else on the record stretches out in the same way — most songs hover around five minutes — but most of them don’t offer the same surprising shifts. Broeckner’s songs, still filtering Springsteen effectively through New Wave sounds, survive all that sonic size a little better than Krug’s on the whole. “Palm Road” has a thundering beat to it, and Broeckner’s terse, bellowing delivery ratchets up the arena rock feel, even if the keys and synthesizers get laid on a bit thick in places. “Little Golden Age” starts out well, too, as Broeckner and Krug drop bunched-up riffs sporadically over a spaced-out beat.
That song, though, ends much in the way a lot of these tracks do. We get the parts early on — the riff, the meandering vocal melody, the keys, the beat — but by song’s end it has all mashed together in a grinding wall of sound. The control we’ve heard from Wolf Parade at their best falls away the longer these songs stick around. Songs like “In the Direction of the Moon” or “Podoby’s Nerfect” start off strong, but overstay their welcome. Part of the trouble comes from sanding down their edge. The echo that has always soaked Krug’s vocals has, on Expo 86, spilled out into every element of the record. Each part of these songs feels like it’s running into the next, so everything gets confused instead of complicated. Many of these songs — “In the Direction of the Moon” most notably — start with a great, jangling riff, only to tangle themselves into an onslaught of sound.
The last third of the record is its best because the songs give their many elements enough space to work. “Oh You, Old Thing” is Krug’s best song on the record. His voice is coated in reverb, per usual, and the guitar echoes in a similar way. But the keys are clean and sharp, so those echoes actually get to resonate, and the song earns its six minutes by subtly thickening the layers without weighing them down. “Yulia” and “Cave-O-Sapien” close the record with a brilliant one-two punch — two driving rock songs that sound stronger than the other songs because, well, they don’t sound like they’re trying so damn hard.
And in the end, maybe that’s it, the thing that’s keeping Wolf Parade from making their second great record. The songs on Apologies to the Queen Mary were lean, yes, but they also sounded effortless. And the more we hear from these guys on all their projects — and in Krug’s work most of all — the more these sound less like songs and more like academic compositions. Yes, these guys are great musicians, but just because they can come up with a thousand good ideas doesn’t mean they need to use them all. And, in the end, the dozens of good moments that go into Expo 86 hold it back from having a lot of great moments. When Wolf Parade sound like a rock band, and not like tinkering music theorists, they’re capable of being the shining light indie rock fans want them to be. But when they don’t, they’re closer to a sign of the times than a sign of what’s to come.