A new Wolf Parade album is always an event. This is due in no small part to the members’ endless side projects; as of press time, Spencer Krug has officially been in every single indie band in Canada. I always half-expect each new record to be the one where they decide, “Fuck it, let’s just do our own thing from now on.” But mostly it’s because the individual members explore so much unique terrain on their own that I’m always anxious to hear what they bring back to the collective. Those who have been following them all along probably won’t find anything too shocking their third time around, however, as Expo 86 seems to refine rather than reinvent the sound of their guitar-driven predecessor, 2007’s At Mount Zoomer.
Co-front man Dan Boeckner has described Expo 86 as a more ‘focused’ album than their sophomore effort. Zoomer was cobbled together from several extended improvisational sessions, and, as a result, even some of the better tracks took unexpected (and often unnecessary) detours. Expo benefits from its more deliberate writing process, and the best songs here come across with not only a highly nuanced sense of melody, but also an accompanying urgency that was too often lacking on their last album.
Expo again finds songwriting duties split almost evenly between Krug and Boeckner, and while Boeckner is definitely the more reliable horse to bet on this time, it’s Krug who delivers the most transcendent moments. From the spectacular call-and-response interplay between the guitars on “Cloud Shadow on the Mountain” to the layered synth polyphony of “In the Direction of the Moon,” he creates a lot of drama, aided in no small measure by his (now trademark) lyrical flights of fancy. Just listen to the way that “What Did My Lover Say (It Always Had to Go That Way)” artfully lifts a theme from the instrumental coda of the excellent “Kissing the Beehive” but trades in that track’s apocalyptic dread for an infectious one-two dance beat.
But let’s not minimize Boeckner’s contributions. He’s channeling some classic rock bombast here, and always to great effect, e.g., the doomed romance of “Palm Road” that smacks of 70s Springsteen or the Thin Lizzy-esque way that he sings out of step with the melody on “Little Golden Age.” The rough, world-weary sound of his voice provides an excellent counterpoint to Krug’s more frenetic style, and when they play off each other, as on the conclusion to “Ghost Pressure,” it reminds you why it’s such a damn good thing that these guys work together.
Although Boeckner manages a late-album treat with “Yulia,” the back end of Expo 86 mostly drags. “Two Men in New Tuxedos” has a very Sunset Rubdown feel, but its three-minute running time doesn’t give it enough space to explore the various contortions the melody moves in. “Oh You, Old Thing” gives me sunshine and mellow vibes when I’m really hungry for some jitters and emotional catharsis, and album closer “Cave-O-Sapien” has a particularly 90s post-grunge feel to it that rubs me wrong.
Yeah, there’s a fair share of stuff here that doesn’t work, but the stuff that does works so well that I feel kind of petty bitching about it too loudly. Expo 86 puts up a good showing. The best songs are catchy as hell but complex enough to stay sharp even after repeated listening. And now that Wolf Parade has one more super-cool album in the can, I can go back to living in constant, irrational fear that this band is going to break up, at least until they follow it up two or three years from now.