Monday, June 23, 2008

Music Review: Wolf Parade - At Mount Zoomer

Wolf Parade’s debut full-length album, Apologies to the Queen Mary, was a decidedly manic and unnerving album. The lyrics were more spat out than sung, with odd vocal twitches from both Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug. The instrumentation was jagged and aggressive, with guitars in the forefront. The album’s themes were vague but not obtuse; most songs implied both an internal and outward tension and dissatisfaction that made it pretty clear the characters in these songs weren’t the types of people you’d want to have a beer with. Indie fans and critics swooned and raved with wild superlatives

At Mount Zoomer finds Wolf Parade exploring similar themes as their debut album, but with a noticeably different vocal style and instrumental sound. Like the best moments of Apologies, the songs hint at Big Existential Concepts without getting heavy-handed or laughably philosophical: images of death are most noticeable, with enough bleakness to put a downer on anyone’s day (“like some dead relative you will remember me most”). Boeckner and Krug’s subjects all tend to feel perilously out of place in their environment (“Soldier’s Grin”), engage in pointless acts for no apparent reason (“all this work just to tear it down” in “Language City”), or desperately seek to escape their lives (“The Grey Estates”).

The vocal approach taken by both singers is very different from Apologies. Modest Mouse frontman/deranged carnival barker Isaac Brock’s vocal influence was felt throughout that album in his role as producer, with Wolf Parade’s lyrics often being yelped out and oddly phrased in a way that occasionally made the words hard to decipher (it’s not the Canadian accent, as one less-than-enthused smartass friend once told me after listening to the album).

On Zoomer, the vocals are mostly far more controlled and restrained, without making the songs sound any less urgent. There’s also an audible fatigue in both singer’s voices that serves the songs well. In some ways, this restraint actually heightens the tension throughout the album’s songs.

The other striking departure is the instrumentation; keyboards are much higher in the mix this time around, and as prominent as the guitars, drums, and random synth noises. Detractors might drop the magical “P” word (Prog, you fiends…get your minds out of the gutter), but this new sound fits in well with the more-restrained vocals. The instrumental breaks are also more pronounced; the last minute or so of “Fine Young Cannibals” and closing track “Kissing the Beehive” incorporate this approach very well. While it’s not a wildly dramatic shift (like, say, Tom Waits going from crooning over a piano to pounding away on random junkyard scraps), it does show the band incorporating sounds that were absent from Apologies.

If Wolf Parade can be faulted for anything, it’s that At Mount Zoomer could be accused of being overly-serious; indeed, moments of hope, or even simple levity, are virtually non-existent. The voices in these songs are frail, with their nerve endings exposed and no real indication that anything will change for the better. With great lyrics and an evolving musical style, this album is every bit as good as Apologies to the Queen Mary.

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