Third Act

Sunset Rubdown collate again to create another stunner

Imagine this: In July 2005, a modest (mostly solo) album by Spencer Krug's Sunset Rubdown, Snake's Got a Leg, was released independently (on Global Symphonic) to little notice; in September 2005, Wolf Parade, Krug's other group, released Apologies to the Queen Mary on Sub Pop, catapulting them into the rafters of indie fame.

Suddenly, by default of Wolf Parade's fame, Sunset Rubdown swelled from the pet project of Krug (vocals, guitar, keys, accordion) to an official side project--the current incarnation includes Camilla Ingr (keys), Michael Doerksen (guitar) and Jordan Robson-Cramer (drums).

Oddly, Sunset Rubdown have now become far more prolific than Wolf Parade, making them Krug's side-but-sort-of-primary project.

This kind of duality is familiar for Krug, who just finished a road jaunt with Wolf Parade, and is now on tour with his Sunset cohorts. The group is running through a victory lap for its impressive and nuanced new album, Random Spirit Lover, which brings them to Tucson next Thursday, Oct. 18. Comprising 12 tracks, Random Spirit Lover, with each song bleeding into the next, is actually an honest to goodness prog-rock symphony. In comparison to 2006's Shut Up I Am Dreaming, Sunset Rubdown's wondrous and dissonant previous effort, Random Spirit Lover displays sharpened chops and vastly improved studio wizardry.

Krug is yet another Canadian musician with an impressive work habit (see members of Broken Social Scene, the New Pornographers, etc.). In addition to the one-two punch of Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown, Krug has put his sonic Midas touch on the music of Frog Eyes and Swan Lake (the trio formed with Destroyer's Dan Bejar and Frog Eyes' Carey Mercer).

What runs deep throughout Krug's work, aside from a keen ear for melodic shifts, is an agile and complex mind that allows him to craft pop songs that are brilliantly resilient. Each listen of Random Spirit Lover uncovers the onion-like levels of Krug's songwriting. From the opening guitar deconstruction--soaring highs, detuned lows--of "The Mending of the Gown," we assume we have figured out Sunset Rubdown: They are pop decentered, both cheeky and catchy. But then the song shifts into electronic chamber music ... then it again transforms, this time shifting into fist-pumping anthemic rock ... that is, before crashing down as a breakneck madhouse call-and-response of jackal yelps and cascading keys. And that's just track one.

Entering in a seamless meld, the second song, the plaintive "Magic Vs. Midas," reads as self-commentary. Consider this rhetorically: Krug, a schooled musician (both road and academically tested; he studied both music composition and creative writing at Concordia University), is commenting on his own trade, deeming it either sleight of hand or noting his hit-making tendencies. But before the listener is given time to reflect upon such matters, "Up on Your Leopard, Upon the End of Your Feral Days" comes roaring out of the gates with plinking keys and militant drums, before (of course) sagging into a lulling midsection that ripples into the rising fury of its conclusion.

Again, without being given time to collect our senses, we are thrust into the time-delayed pageantry of "The Courtesan Has Sung," and taken through another ride of carnival sounds and soaring highs. With the song's lyrical focus on actors and the stage on which they perform, we are thrown another morsel of insight into the labyrinthine album: Performance, namely theatrical, informs its "narrative" (used extremely loosely). And a mere four songs in, and countless theoretical avenues presented, Krug and company end the first act.

Incorporating leopards, nautical themes--those indie rockers just love them these days (the residue of Tom Waits?)--spirits, winged things and virgins, Random Spirit Lover seems to work ideally as a three-act play (three sets of four tunes), but just try to distill a clear storyline. With its chunky keyboards, guttural howls and impenetrable lyrics, Random Spirit Lover is no easy listen, yet Krug's songs are still built to last. Each song is like a set of Russian dolls, with countless goodies packed inside to uncover with each listen.

There's the asthmatic synthesizers and fever-pitch climax of "Winged/Wicked Things," a tune which finds Krug barking the impossibly wonderful: "So you say it's some shroud of Turin / And the sun wore it white and the earth wore it thin / Or the son wore it white and his faith wore it thin." Meanwhile, "Stallion" is the record's crowning prog-rock moment, with funhouse effects on the guitars and keyboards, and Krug's strained voice barking: "I am good where I am / I am good where I am / But my God where I am / Oh my God where I am." Some self-commentary enters on "The Taming of the Hands That Came Back to Life," where Krug, over arena-rock drums and whistling keyboards, sings: "She said: My sails are flapping in the wind / I said: Can I use that in a song? / She said: I mean, 'The end begins' / I said: I know, can I use that too?" Initially, these are the moments one grabs onto, but given the endlessly unfolding nature of the album, it seems to change with consecutive listens.

With each successive album, Sunset Rubdown are progressively distancing themselves from their initial tag--"that one singer-guy from Wolf Parade's side project"--and it may not be long before Wolf Parade becomes "that Sunset guy's other band." Random Spirit Lover may exist as a paradox (lyrically, it is near-impenetrable; musically, it is a wonder), but it is one of the most rewarding releases of the year--transforming its curtain call (the ephemeral and hushed "Child-Heart Losers") into a mere intermission before the next spin.