When we last caught up with Wolf Parade about two years ago (http://flyinghouses.blogspot.com/2008/06/wolf-parade-at-mount-zoomer.html), we were in Los Angeles, we were calling Spencer Krug's voice "twittering" and we were talking about how he read minds and we were talking about personal problems plaguing the publication of a zine that will now never be resurrected.
Things have changed. We are many miles east, "twittering" is a weird word, and the zine will never see the light of day--but Krug still reads minds. And the new Wolf Parade album, Expo '86, is just fine.
Since then, Handsome Furs put out a new critically-acclaimed album, and Sunset Rubdown put out Dragonslayer, which should have been reviewed here but wasn't. It also should have been named an "honorable mention" on the best albums of 2009 list, along with the Pissed Jeans record, but I am not so thorough sometimes. Dragonslayer was not as good as Random Spirit Lover, in my opinion--but not anybody else's. As far as rock critics opinions go, the leaders of Wolf Parade are at the top of their game.
And this album is receiving middling reviews, somewhat similar to the one I am writing. They say it's good, better than At Mount Zoomer, but not as good as Apologies to Queen Mary. At Mount Zoomer had a few good songs and some decent moments, but makes for a relatively difficult listen. Expo '86 isn't the easiest listen in the world, but there is more to love about it, and it's fair to say that Wolf Parade are "back on track."
The first track "Cloud Shadow on the Mountain" is Krug's, and before anything else on the album you hear him sing "I was asleep on a hammock." It's a very rushed opening, also bearing a certain resemblance the "The Mending of the Gown," the opening track on Random Spirit Lover, but instead of the weird keyboard part that also seems to open At Mount Zoomer, there is Krug's restlessness. And his restlessness is more contained, but still quite satisfying on this opening track.
"Palm Road" is a Dan Boeckner song, and it is almost comical how much it sounds like an Arcade Fire song. Granted, the drummer in Wolf Parade also played (plays?) in Arcade Fire, and even though I said "The Grey Estates" sounded like "Antichrist Television Blues," this time the similarity is totally unmistakable. It has been called a "Springsteen-esque" song, as Arcade Fire songs often are, but this is a "cover-like homage" to a peer like I have never heard before.
That said it's a good song, but I am too partial to Krug, and the next track "What Did My Lover Say (It Always Had to Go this Way)" is one of his and one of the best here. Of particular note is when he sings, "I've got a friend who's a genius/Nobody listens to him/I've got some friends who got famous/la la la la la la." Mind-reading lyrical genius and good music to set it against make for an album highlight.
Boeckner's next song, however, takes him into a higher class, and while I am very partial to Krug, Boeckner's songs on this album are my favorite that I have heard from him. Particularly this 4th track, "Little Golden Age" which talks about getting stoned in parking lots and watching the stars:
"So we hung around and we hung around
and we hung around for days
In the parking lot stoned, star shone out of phase
And the rain came down, cassettes wore out. Oh no!
Then you left town feeling pretty down
With your headphones on and your coat and
your dirty graduation gown you were
In the bedroom singing radio songs
Sing them loud
Sing them all night, Emily
You need something to help you along
Freeze, freeze, freeze Little Golden Age"
There was a review in the Chicago Tribune of this album and they basically said, "Yeah, it's good, (I think they gave it 2 1/2 stars out of 4) but they don't have much to say." The critic (I don't think it was Greg Kot, I rarely disagree with him) claimed the lyrics were weak on this album, and yeah, sometimes Wolf Parade lyrics can be vague (Boeckner) or like young-adult-fantasy-fiction (Krug), but they're never redundant or cliched. They're often mysterious, and seem to be meaningless, which is the critic's issue, but they're not, and he's stupid (unless it was Greg Kot).
The 5th track, "In the Direction of the Moon" is Krug again, with some of his zaniest lyrics ever ("I'm a disaster!"..."I take my meals with weirdos") that save it from being a boring song. It sounds like it will be an epic song, but it's not really. Krug's lyrics are actually very touching, addressed to a lover that is the "most gracious thing I know," "fantastic," and "so composed."
I guess the song is about a relationship that is barely holding together because the narrator is so messed up and the lover is much more together with their life. But there is self-consciousness, and one cannot believe the narrator would make such trouble, hence the touching aspect.
"Ghost Pressure" is Boeckner and probably one of the more unremarkable things on the album. Not an unpleasant song, just unremarkable.
"Pobody's Nerfect," however, is Boeckner again, and his second best song after "Little Golden Age" here. It would be a good candidate for radio airplay, and is perhaps the most accessible song on the album (well, after "Palm Road" maybe).
"Two Men in New Tuxedos" is Krug, so it's good, but also vaguely unremarkable. It also has the line "I can see into the future!" --so it is the point at which Krug finally opens up about his extrasensory talents.
"Oh You, Old Thing" is like a repeat of the previous track, in being an unremarkable Krug song, still containing brilliant lyrics: "As much as I have always loved your dancing/I hate the sounds that come from crowds/that just don't get/my moves."
"Yulia" is another pleasant surprise from Boeckner which always makes me think about the band Mercury Landing and how they used to be called Yulia and I wonder what the fuck that word means and I wonder if it is just some variant of Julia.
Then you get to "Cave-o-Sapien." Now, Wolf Parade have always had good closing tracks, but this is the best they have ever done. It is yet another Krug song, so the bookends of the album are his, and they're two of the highlights of it all. OK, to be fair, it's really hard to be a better song than "This Heart's on Fire"--but that was a Boeckner song. "Kissing the Beehive" had a couple of beautiful moments, but on the whole, like the album it closes, it's a bit to slog through. But "Cave-o-Sapien" is economical, epic, and declarative.
This is also an interesting album because it is named for a fair that happened in Montreal in 1986, where apparently all three main members of Wolf Parade were in attendance as children. The sleeve for the CD is cool, and the CD itself mimics the appearance of compact discs from the mid-to-late 80's, which is so cool. I don't know how that concept fits in with the general trajectory of the songs here, but I don't think Wolf Parade have been interested in "concept albums." Their albums have been collections of songs without a general theme, unless you could say each songwriter brings his own themes to each of his songs, which is kind of true, I think. They're both distinct, and their songwriting strengths helped to make Apologies to Queen Mary such a shot out of the blue. Their other albums continue to eclipse their "supergroup," but nobody will notice them anyways.
The At Mount Zoomer review ends with a ranking of all the albums each member has done, and I will not attempt that--only ask the question, is Expo '86 better than Dragonslayer? And I say yes. But still not as good as Random Spirit Lover and still not as good as Apologies to Queen Mary. Probably the 3rd best album by any individual in the collective--but I still haven't heard that new Handsome Furs one either. It's possible this will make the top 10 of 2010 but it is more likely I will only mention it honorably.