Monday, March 16, 2009

Swan Lake: Enemy Mine

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Enemy Mine shouldn't work as well as it does. The product of three musicians from three different bands with largely contrasting styles - Dan Bejar of Destroyer and sometimes The New Pornographers, Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown, and Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes - it's a mostly abrasive and dizzying mess of an album. It plays like a veritable indie stew of various musical and lyrical concepts; its nine songs each veer off in their own direction before the listener can ever get grounded. It's a strategy the trio utilized to great effect on debut album Beast Moans, that release succeeding despite (or perhaps because of) each musician's instrumental and vocal eccentricities. Such experimentation and lack of cohesion are too often the hallmarks of a band who thinks their shit doesn't stink as they drown in shameless self-indulgence. Such failed efforts don't dot the indie landscape so much as litter it like stinking refuse, yet Enemy Mine almost flawlessly avoids these pitfalls.

Each musician takes the lead on three songs and provides backup on most of the others, with each man applying his vocal quirks and twitches to songs that are primarily dark and impressionistic. Upon first listen Mercer's vocals are the least accessible and most ragged, with a yelping, wrecked voice of oddly-enunciated syllables occasionally drenched in echo. Though his voice remains difficult even with multiple listens - a smooth crooner Mercer is not - an element of gothic theatricality that strangely holds the listener's attention emerges. Opening song "Spanish Gold, 2044" builds from throbbing percussion, jagged punctuations of guitar and keyboards and chanted background vocals that suggest all three musicians have been drinking from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' well of misery. The song also favors the lyrical ambiguity that surfaces throughout Enemy Mine, with clipped images and phrases - "I left this bullwhip by the nightstand/ Julliard was a thousand miles ago" -suggesting meanings without making anything obvious other than all sort of bad shit's about to go down. The ironically-titled "Peace" features none of that; it augments drums and guitar stabs with backing vocals from Behar and Krug as Mercer howls like a deranged rush-hour street corner preacher.

Krug's vocals are no less interesting. "Paper Lace" opens and ends with acoustic guitar and a subdued synth line, a welcome change of pace after the mania of "Spanish Gold, 2044." If Krug's vocals here are more restrained than what he shows in his Wolf Parade guise, "Settle On Your Skin" has all the hallmarks of that band's sound: driving rhythms moving at breakneck pace, fidgety and somewhat distorted vocals that imply that the microphone's about to be swallowed, and lyrics teeming with the fatigue and insomnia of someone about to go off the rails. Hushed backing vocals support Krug on the piano-driven "A Hand At Dusk;" the closest thing to a ballad the album offers; the song's romantic sickbed sentiment is both humorous and oddly devotional, with Krug singing, "It's getting old, I know, I know/ But I'll hold your hair back when you're sick."

Bejar mostly reins in the vocal exaggerations that have plagued Destroyer's albums to varying degrees ever since masterpiece City of Daughters. Though his vocals lack Mercer's recklessness or Krug's, um, Wolf Parade-essness, Bejar's disciplined low-key approach offers a nice counterpoint to the spasms from Mercer and Krug. While "Ballad Of A Swan Lake, Or, Daniel's Song," with its other-worldly setting and an arrangement that sounds like a cross between a circus song and a funeral march from hell, acts as Bejar's contribution to the album's experimental quality, it's the simplicity of "Heartswarm" that stands out. The album's most melodic song, it's framed by Bejar's direct vocals and an acoustic guitar accented by keyboards, a touch of fuzz, and Mercer's backing vocals. Besides containing Enemy Mine's best lyric - "Do my eyes deceive me/ Or is it truly springtime in Paris for that piece of shit?" - it makes the album's dramatic stylistic shifts most apparent.

Ultimately, Enemy Mine plays like a collaborative effort, and not just because of the album's recurring images of time, distance, death, fractured psyche and assorted acts of violence. Despite each vocalist's singular quirks, each of them leave their mark on each song, with contrasting styles that comfortably fit together when they really shouldn't. The album doesn't so much bend musical genres as it turns them on their heads, shakes their pockets out and kicks them hard in the groin. It's a swirling, disparate tramp through often difficult terrain, but the reward is an album that's both unpredictable and highly original.

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