Sunset Rubdown Random Spirit Lover

[Jagjaguwar; 2007]

Rating: 2.5/5

Styles: indie pop
Others: Wolf Parade, Frog Eyes, Swan Lake

To pursue meaning and find it is noble; to seek significance every moment is tiresome. When my wife and I eat chicken biscuits at Chic-Fil-A, we're enjoying a delicious meal and conversing meaningfully, enjoying sustenance and companionship. Such a morning is often the best part of my week. But even then there are lulls. Neither of us is an A.M. person, so we hit these 20-second patches during which we don't talk. I break the silence by asking her if she needs a refill. And if I were Spencer Krug, the singer and songwriter at the helm of Sunset Rubdown, I couldn't handle these lapses. I wouldn't accept that human beings are incapable of making every second count. I would suck the marrow out of the entire morning. And I would make my wife very cranky.

I didn't ask her to check out Random Spirit Lover, because I know she, like many discerning listeners, would have no patience with Krug's tortured yelps, his quivering, Conor Oberst-like brays. The forced desperation in his croons has led many folks I know to discount Sunset Rubdown and his other projects (Wolf Parade, Frog Eyes, Swan Lake) as garish rubbish. Me, I can stomach Krug's man-child yowls as long as the music's diverting -- which is often the case on Random Spirit Lover. Krug's ambitious approach to songwriting -- an agile take on prog that values lean instrumentation and limber movement between sections of songs rather than turgid orchestration and brute displays of virtuosity -- is, secondary to his vocal style, his defining trait. And this fluid songcraft is truly fresh. Especially on this record, Krug's most compositionally dynamic yet.

Since Sunset Rubdown is Krug's solo project (three musicians join him on this record, but he writes everything), both his flaws and charms are concentrated, amplified. "The Mending of the Gown," the first song here, captures Sunset Rubdown at its best and worst. The music is electrifying, a high octane version of late-'60s Kinks: distortion-caked guitars dishing out deviant boogie, keyboards drag-racing them, tambourine egging everyone on. And during a breathless mid-section, which sounds more like '90s slacker indie than classic guitar pop on meth, Krug spills out a stream of warbled syllables that mirror the music's reckless pace; his singing works. But when the tempo eases -- and since this is a complex song, the tempo does ease -- Krug oversells his lyrics, sounding too shaky and neurotic. He's also out of sorts when the song crests, his cracking voice a feeble compliment to the snarling guitars. His music's dynamic, but his voice lacks range and variety. Krug sings emotionally, but not responsively. And judging from the interviews I've read, he knows better. He's no autistic savant, capable of sculpting pop songs, incapable of processing human feelings.

The slower and subtler the song, the more Krug grates. I skip "Magic Vs. Midas," a mostly acoustic, mid-tempo tune in which Krug mangles what little melody is there. "Up on Your Leopard, Upon the End of Your Feral Days" is better than that track, but when the drums drop out and we're left with only voice and guitar, it's laughably overwrought. Krug struggles in breezier waters, too. He sounds miserable in the Modest Mouse-ish "The Taming of the Hands That Came Back to Life," his voice unable to swing with the seesawing beat. He could have had himself a beachside jam there, but he runs it into the ditch.

Now, I'll admit that I can't make heads or hinds out of Krug's lyrics, which hang heavy with mythical personages and jungle cats who, like he as a vocalist, appeal to neither my heart nor my mind. So perhaps the album packs an allegorical meaning that demands Krug sing always in a strained yelp. But why complicate matters so much? Why pass up an opportunity to justify his music's most trying attribute? I'd be more generous if Krug's music were mounting an avant-argument, but it isn't -- it's indie pop. To me, the yelping bit reeks of contrivance. And sure, all music is, in its own way, contrived, but Random Spirit Lover doesn't profit by its artifice. Krug's a dullard in the company of great terrible singers like Neil Young and Iggy Pop. If he's shooting for theatricality, he isn't aiming high enough. And even then, he needs to grow more confident in his songs, allow verses to creep by without singing at an emotional fever pitch, because he's a good enough song-builder to let his tunes breathe, to make room for comic relief, silence, understatement, even boredom. Take it from my wife: anyone who wrings heavy emotions from every second makes for obnoxious company.

1. The Mending of the Gown
2. Magic Vs. Midas
3. Up on Your Leopard, Upon the End of Your Feral Days
4. The Courtesan Has Sung
5. Winged/Wicked Things
6. Colt Stands Up, Grows Horns
7. Stallion
8. For the Pier (And Dead Shimmering)
9. The Taming of the Hands That Came Back to Life
10. Setting Vs. Rising
11. Trumpet, Trumpet, Toot! Toot!
12. Child-Heart Losers

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