Wolf Parade: Expo 86

Mark Gluth


No one does energetic, up tempo (but slightly off kilter) rock music like Wolf Parade.  Within seconds of the start of the first track, “Cloud Shadow on the Mountain,” Spencer Krug, in full master of ceremonies mode, yelps ‘I was a dream catcher hanging in the window of a mini-van parked along the water’s edge.”  It’s a main vocal line that mirrors whatever guitar melodies hang below the surface of the reverby, new wave-esque track. Wolf Parade puts the song through its paces in a quick feeling four and a half minutes, exploring several idioms and variations until it hits a breakdown in which dissonant guitar lines (reminiscent of Bauhaus’s Daniel Ash) dive–bomb over moderately crazed drum fills. Unrelenting but toe tapping, other worldly while also totally rocking, “Cloud Shadow”… is an excellent template for what Wolf Parade are capable of and more importantly what they are aiming for on Expo 86.  In a recent interview co-band leader Spencer Krug discussed the band’s focused and expedient sessions for the album: “I’ve recorded this way before and hope to again.  I think it makes for livelier, more honest music” (pitchfork 5/3/10).  It’s an approach the band clearly benefits from. Expo 86 is composed of one compulsively toe tapping, head nodding track after another.  It’s catchy as all hell with brainy lyrics and mega songwriting chops hidden behind a veneer of accessibility.  Wolf Parade has two of the best and brightest (but also weirdest) songwriters working in Indie rock today and Expo 86 ably demonstrates what happens when they, with a seasoned band behind them, set their minds to writing pop rock sans the usual contemporary qualifications (hypnogogic, folk, glo fi etc…).

While discussion boards fill up about whether Expo 86 will be hailed as a Dan Boeckner or Spencer Krug album it’s all beside the point, born of an urge to pigeonhole and label 2 guys with so much overflowing ability.  In the past Krug has been the one that was more willing to art damage his already art damaged songs, littering idiosyncratic imagery and wide reaching metaphors over tracks that, more often than not, played out like emotional roller coasters. Think of the version of “I’ll Believe in Anything” from Wolf Parade’s debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, as an archetypical Krug track.  On this album he’s content to write driving, melodic rock music, hedging his bets with verse/chorus/verse structures.  Strangely, given this sense of conventional structure,  Krug’s lyrics are looser and more ramshackle.  Several of them are built around dreams, and all of them have a fluid, dream logic that builds meaning out of cascading imagery and cyclical sentence structures.  Below the surface nonsense, there is sense.  In “What Did My Lover Say?” he sings “I don’t think I should be sorry for things I do in dreams.  Just let the tumbling birds come tumbling down.” and later “I sleep all night with the light on and dream about the sun, maybe because of the light, maybe because of the sun.” On “In the Direction of the Moon” he builds a track in which each line is an unexplained metaphor.  It all builds, by the end, to a web of cross associations that reach towards meaning.

Dan Boeckner is the one who has formed and molded his tracks with an ear towards more populist instincts.  He writes catchy, often anthem-y rock music that manages to be both ragged and uplifiting. He has the hallmark ability to write lyrics that are simultaneously super vague and super specific, and to inflect them with so much emotion that, when you hear them, they mean something beyond actual language.  At the end of the first chorus of “Pobody’s Nerfect(sic)” he sings “Morning will turn everything back to gold” or in “Yulia” when he sings the titular name, he manages to infuse each syllable with epics (epochs?), the weight of history.  His voice is one built for conveying failure, yearning and desperation.  By the time of the outro, when he chants “There’s nothing out here” repeatedly, I dare you to tell me you’re not moved.

While their previous (underappreciated) release, At Mt. Zoomer, had some amazing songwriting, it often felt hemmed in by a stilted, edited approach and sound. From the opening to the close, Expo 86 is a joy to listen to. I found myself just kinda, well, experiencing it, like at a great live show.  The band just sounds so relaxed on it.  The performances are muscular, and nailed with ease.  The production has a direct quality where the music is largely unfettered, un-fussed with. This could be due in part to the band recently becoming a 4 piece (Hadji Bakara, the band’s resident Eno-esque electronics genius left Wolf Parade to get a Doctorate in English Literature).  I believe it was Robert Pollard that defined Rock as “4 white guys standing on stage.”  Well Krug sits, and crouches, but he kinda has to considering his instrument.  My point is that the album rocks because it is rock.  Rock in the key of say…the first side of Low by David Bowie (as opposed to Led Zepplin).  Rock like Wire (as opposed to the Ramones).

The question I ponder, and I’m sure Subpop must be thinking this as well, is why a band with dual front men who ably lead their own separate projects, whose production of quality song writing is on par with next to no one else working today, have not arrived in the sense of some of their brethren, other millennial indie label wunderkinds. Whilst Wolf Parade get solid reviews in all the expected venues, and they are respected from all those whose respect is respected, neither Boeckner nor Krug, (and certainly not Boeckner and Krug) have the sense of renown surrounding them that they deserve.  For a band who has explored many odd songwriting waters in their day, isn’t it strange that Expo 86 is not being labeled  as  ‘more accessible’ or  ‘a sell out.’  It’s probably because Wolf Parade manage to skirt below multiple radars. They’re song writers with serious skill who aren’t quite serious about the whole star side of it. They earnestly care about making albums, composed of well written songs that are full of all this evidence that they both care about and listen to a lot of music, and are therefore probably destined to be critical darlings at best.  But then being a critical darling in a world of critical darlings can be an excellent way to fall back into the peloton.

One gets the feeling the band couldn’t care though, that the music comes first, or rather that their aims for their music comes first.  Of course they have to sell records and tickets, and the powers that be would probably prefer ever increasing numbers of records and tickets to larger and larger venues, but it’s really nice to see a band just doing what they feel they do best, and then hoping for the best.