Sunset Rubdown Dragonslayer

[Jagjaguwar; 2009]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: indie rock, prog-rock
Others: The Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, Bowie

Faint praise runs the risk of damnation. In some cases, the implications of a dispassionate response are well-deserved. Many a lackluster follow-up record has been met with cool dismissal, with a collective "eh." While Random Spirit Lover was hardly a best seller, it was a stealth favorite for many indie fans (myself included) and demonstrated a quantum leap ahead in terms of Sunset Rubdown's ambition, scope, and ability. Dragonslayer, their newest record, represents a far less radical evolution and will potentially engender a far more muted response.

Sleeper, grower, slow-burner; these are all phrases, euphemisms that --though ostensibly positive -- imply a vague, nagging sense of disappointment. Any of them could be used to accurately describe Dragonslayer in a broad, blanket manner, with all praise and reproof connoted. Oddly, Sunset Rubdown almost seem to invite it. Unlike Random Spirit Lover, which barreled straight out the gates with “The Mending Of The Gown,” Dragonslayer begins far more mournfully. “Silver Moons,” the first of Dragonslayer's eight songs, is a curious start to any album; something of an elegy, it reads like the most imaginative suicide note ever scrawled: "Confetti floats away/ Like dead leaves/ In the wagon's wake/ There were parties here/ In my honor/ Till you sent me away/ And now silver moons/ Belong to you."

Spencer Krug, the not-so-mad genius behind Sunset Rubdown, slips in an allusion to Random Spirit Lover's first track at the end of the song. Its meaning is essentially impossible to pin down, but it can be understood that he who observed of the mended gown-wearer that "her demise was her design" has finally met his own. It is precisely this lyrical opacity that makes Dragonslayer more difficult to love than its predecessor. The elegiac tone is set by the end of “Silver Moons,” and the fatalistic attitude that permeates the album isn't easy to ignore at first. It takes Krug half the album, but he finally abandons his moribund fixation. Once Krug ‘covers’ “Paper Lace,” his own song, he seems to shake off whatever it was that dragged down the album's first half. "I've heard you're suffering/Come be a wild thing" he pleads, and suddenly the feeling of the album grows to be about more than just death and memory.

Indeed, “Paper Lace” is Sunset Rubdown's first Pop moment; not coincidentally, it's the weakest song on Dragonslayer, but it also best reflects its uneasy feeling. The first half of the song feels off, like it's missing some unknown but crucial element. The second half of the song, once Krug stops holding back, is virtually perfect. He bites into his own lyrics, singing as convoluted line as "There's nothing left inside the room you filled with lion skins and laurels" like he was Bowie himself. The song, and the album as a whole, feels like the articulation of a minor epiphany; Sunset Rubdown no longer need the safe distancing afforded by playing pretend. These aren't ironic epics. Dragonslayer is no less idiosyncratic than any of their other albums, but here they finally sound unafraid of their own ambitions.

These subtle shifts aren't easily discerned on first impression, nor on the fifth or tenth even. Although Dragonslayer is Sunset Rubdown's least sonically-complex album yet, its relative simplicity is a feat of misdirection. Pay attention, rather, to the details. The newly confident tone of Krug's voice, the emphasis on rhythm over texture (thanks to new bassist-drummer Mark Nicol), and the anthemic nature of every single song here -- all of these signify not just a band fighting against creative stagnation, but a band winning that fight.

Some will only hear the mainstream conventions at play here. The harder, more aggressive songs, like “Idiot Heart” and “You Go On Ahead,” evoke several eras of rock simultaneously. It's almost as if Krug decided to not only sing about horses, but to start sounding like a Crazy one. One could nitpick the over-reliance on lyrical tics and motifs, and the polyrhythmic undercurrent on “Nightingale/December Song” could be dismissed as a concession to the more popular indie acts of 2009. But none of these gripes account for the fact that Sunset Rubdown are making some of the most interesting rock music out there. It takes courage to even attempt to achieve one's ambitions; and make no mistake, as lackluster as first impressions might be, Dragonslayer is certainly an achievement.

With Dragon's Lair, the album's climax (and homophonic title track), we are brought full circle and offered a clearer picture of what came before. Krug brings back the confetti from “Silver Moons” but to an entirely different effect. Rather than remain distracted by his lost years, he acknowledges his distraction and moves past it. "I’d like to fight the good fight for another couple of years," he sings, in a manner entirely lacking sentiment or resignation. “Dragon's Lair,” at 12 minutes, is the album's Rosetta Stone; close attention is well-rewarded. Here, Sunset Rubdown walk the thin line between brilliance and indulgence. "Either way it is time for a bigger kind of kill," indeed.

So soft are first impressions of this album that it would be too easy to demean it. Some of the weird digressions are missed, and their newfound confidence is not always justified. But to say that Dragonslayer is not as great an album as Random Spirit Lover or Shut Up I Am Dreaming is to complain for complaint's sake. There comes a point when one can no longer resent a band for attempting to transcend their station. Whether Dragonslayer is as great as any other work is almost irrelevant; it is great and it is grand, and it is all too welcome.

1. Silver Moons
2. Idiot Heart
3. Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh!
4. Black Swan
5. Paper Lace
6. You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II)
7. Nightingale / December Song
8. Dragon’s Lair

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