I trust my Cousin-in-law Sarah’s taste in music, but I have trouble predicting it. I guess I also assume that as a bona-fide Canuck, and Vancouver’s most adeptly sarcastic nurse, she’ll be so excited by the very notion of me liking Canadian bands that she’ll immediately like any that I recommend to her. Stupid of me.
So, she went to see Sunset Rubdown, one of my very favourite bands of the last few years, and current holders of my ‘Best Band Name Ever’ award, and thought they were “a bit ‘Wizard Rock'”. It’s a difficult charge to refute. Spencer Krug, the songwriter, singer, keyboard player and essentially main man of the band, plus about half a dozen other outfits, just writes songs that way.
Across Sunset Rubdown’s three widely released albums he weaves abstract tales stuffed full of kings and queens, horses and horsemen, dragons and snakes, leopards and birds. And synchronised swimmers. On ‘Random Spirit Lover’, the middle of the three, these tales spin out across his most ornate, self-consciously complex compositions, drawing in clear classical influences and constructing songs with interlocking themes, movements and sub-plots. Once you’re familiarised they are bright, delightful, compelling and quite unlike the work of any other songwriter i’ve come across.
Paul Klee described drawing as “taking a line for a walk” and Krug seems to be the Klee of keyboard klatter. Take the opener here, ‘The Mending of the Gown’. It veers all over the place, but always with disarming gusto. The first couple of times you listen it’s almost impossible to get a grip of. By the fourth of fifth time you’ve heard the song arrive at “This one’s for Maggie/This one’s for Sam/… I have lusted after you/the way bloodsuckers do!” you realise that the enchanted journey simply couldn’t have ended anywhere else. From then on following the route each time becomes pure pleasure.
There’s a leap of faith to be taken here. The “Wizard Rock” brickbat is sharp and accurately tossed, and pretty funny too. But there is such pleasure in Sunset Rubdown that clinging to ones sense of propriety is simply self-defeating. ‘Up On Your Leopard, Upon the End of Your Feral Days’ is absolutely one of my favourite songs of the last decade. It’s ludicrous in almost every respect, from the deranged madrigal opening through the hilarious cod-accusatory lyrics (“You’re the one who’s riding around on a leopard!/You’re the one who’s throwing dead birds in the air!”) but above below and right through the middle of all this, all these signals that tell the discerning music lover that this is NOT RIGHT AT ALL, the song is immense fun and that’s a quality that much indie rock seems to have incredible problems with.
I’m choosing this record partly because the word ‘Prog’ has been used in anger a few times over recent meetings. I sense we all have slightly different takes on it. I was brought up to loathe its pomposity, its empty grandeur and its po-faced self-satisfaction with its own perceived complexity. I don’t consider Sunset Rubdown to be ‘Prog’, but I’m hopeful that in considering the question we’ll be able to figure our way around the territory a little more.
Oh, I forgot to mention that ‘Random Spirit Lover’, unlike ‘Shut Up I Am Dreaming’ before it and ‘Dragonslayer’ after, sounds for large parts like it was probably recorded on a bunch of plastic musical instruments intended for use by children. For years I thought it was an album with no bass guitar on it. It’s tinny, tumbling, unhinged and liberating.
So, Sarah, yes it’s a bit ‘Wizard Rock’, but that’s absolutely fine by me. At least in this particular case.
Nick listened: Rob announced as he introduced this that he thought I’d hate it, and that it was long. Thanks, Rob. (Good job Graham was absent, as we each brought 50+ minute records this week, as if to compensate.)
Rob was pretty on the money too, sadly. This fell squarely into the school of mid-00s American indie that I don’t get; what I’d describe (borrowing from Dan Bejar a little) as post Neutral Milk Hotel and Soft Bulletin “West coast maximalism”, where everything gets thrown into the mix (“let’s have an accordion! And a banjo! And a harp! And a dog barking! And a cello! And a trumpet! And a celesete! And a Jews harp! And a massive acoustic guitar! And huge distorted drums! And let’s mix it so you can’t tell any of them from any other of them!”) and everything gets turned up. So it didn’t sound so much like plastic toy instruments as mushed-up instruments, and as a consequence I have no idea what the hell was being sung about (wizards or not) or how the songs went. And frankly, for me, life is too short to revisit Sunset Rubdown and get to know what it is that Rob gets out of it. But he probably suspected I’d say that!
Tom Listened: Well, as far as Random Spirit Lover is concerned I fall somewhere in between Nick and Rob’s two stools…I don’t fawn over it and I find much of it unwieldy to the point of distraction but I do enjoy much of it and have no problem with ‘the cramming of the instruments’ or ‘the tinniness of the sound’ and for some bizarre reason, (I think it’s Spencer Krug’s obvious playfulness) I find the lyrical content amusing rather than annoying. It’s a ridiculously over-reaching, overambitious record that, somehow, just about gets away with it and, interestingly, is a more intriguing and, I would attest, successful work than its more restrained and (moderately) more conventional successor Dragonslayer.