Wolf Parade “Expo 86” / New Pornographers “Together”

When I first heard LeBron James announce his “decision” to “take his talents to South Beach”, I had mixed emotions.  On one hand, I was devastated, not only for the poor fans of Cleveland, but also for the NBA as a whole.  The pillars of what made the league successful (team work, cohesion, and loyalty) all evaporated in the moment LeBron made his heel turn, creating the NBA equivalent of the New York Yankees in the form of the Miami Cheats.  The best name I found for the big three in Miami was a blog that called them The Nazgûl (characters in “Lord of the Rings” that were former kings who lost their humanity due to their search for the all-consuming ring).

Stan Van Gundy would be Samwise.

Despite all the selfishness surrounding the big move, I couldn’t help but smirk a bit at the thought of someone dethroning the misanth-rapist himself, Kobe Bryant.  Plus, as a fan of basketball, I secretly look forward to seeing what a team comprised of three superstars will accomplish (oh, and adding Mike Miller and his Godly 3-point shooting won’t hurt).

The question is, does a super group ever work? In music there have been many super groups over the years with established musicians joining forces, whether it be CSNY, The Traveling Wilburys, or The Highwaymen.  While these groups produced some memorable songs, they all seemed a bit unauthentic, while CSNY were never quite as good without Young carrying the load.   In recent years, bands like Velvet Revolver, Audioslave, and Chickenfoot have brought shame to the notion of the super group.

With two of indie rocks biggest super groups recently releasing albums (Wolf Parade and The New Pornographers) I decided to take a look at their latest offerings to help evaluate how The Nazgûl in Miami may work out.

Wolf Parade
“Expo 86”
[Sub Pop]

Rating: 6

In my humble opinion, Wolf Parade are a super group. Comprised of Sunset Rubdown’s Spencer Krug, Dan Boeckner from the Handsome Furs, and  the former guitarist of Hot Hot Heat Dante DeCaro, this trio along with drummer Arlen Thompson have been creating music together on as a side-project for the past seven years to critical acclaim.  On their past albums, Dan and Spencer are in the forefront with every other song jumping back and forth between their two distinct styles. “Apologies to the Queen Mary” and “At Mount Zoomer” somehow remain focused, despite the band’s multiple personalities.  While Spencer’s artistic fortitude makes you think, Dan’s penchant for melodies will have you up on your feet dancing.  This combination of kinesthetic and intellect resulted in two puzzling albums that remind me of a Coen Brother’s film; with each listen you find something new and thought provoking.

“Expo 86” lacks this variance in sound.  It seems Dan has conceded his musical efforts and let Krug take charge.  Of the eleven songs there is not one that sounds distinctly Boeckner. As a result, the album just kind of sits there.  Krug remains a wonder, but “Expo 86” is basically a Sunset Rubdown album without a heart (plus the whole damn thing is really loud – what happened to your peaks and valleys Mr. Krug?).  After his disappointing Handsome Fur’s album “Face Control”, has Boeckner lost his confidence and let Krug take full control?  Which leads me to the first and second possible outcome of the Evil Empire in South Beach:

1. With all three of these guys accostumed to being the top dog on their former teams, will one or two of them lose confidence when their usually high stats plummet? Will one of the three step back to the extent Boeckner did on the latest Wolf Parade album, resulting in a team that is no longer the big three, or even the big two?

2. Or will the unholy trinity be more like the Wolf Parade of the past, with all the members offering up their strengths and somehow merging them into a balanced, unending attack?

Here’s a little “Cave-O-Sapien” off of “Expo 86” while you ponder these questions:

New Pornographers
“Together”
[Matador Records]

Rating: 7

I would venture to say The New Pornographers are one of the most successful super groups, second to maybe only CSNY.  Over the years the band has accumulated one great album after another, and shown that the members of the band are at their best when working together – well almost.  Neko Case and A.C. Newman, artists who first found success on their own, have shown from one album to the next they are able to blend their voices and styles into a new sound that trumps their solo work.  Instead of trying to stand out as individuals, the two have shaped a sound that is patently New Pornographers.

Then, of course, there is Dan Bejar.  Being the brains behind Destroyer, Bejar has never fully committed to The New Pornographers.  On each album he offers up a couple songs, but he rarely performs live with the rest of the band and is noticeably absent from any song that isn’t written by him.  A quick Google image search of New Pornographers yields a page of images all devoid of Bejar.  This is all fine and dandy if Bejar would like to be the mysterious contributor, but it is all the more frustrating when you realize that the best songs on each album are invariably written by him.

The band’s 2010 release “Together” is as good as anything they’ve released in the past and is a big step up from their 2007 snore-fest “Challengers”, but the distinct New Pornographer sound is becoming a bit stale.  A comparison of “Together” and the band’s first album “Mass Romantic” shows little evolution over the past 10 years.  I can’t help but wonder what would happen if Mr. Bejar dedicated all of his energy into a New Pornographer’s album, working alongside Newman and Case, bringing his brilliance into the mix and creating an album that is refreshing and original.  The thought of Neko and Newman singing about the “Trembling Peacock” and “admiring the admirals” is the stuff of dreams – the stuff of a dream team.  Which leads me to the final possible outcome of the Miami take-over:

3. Will one of the big three take the role of Bejar, unwilling to fully commit to the team?  Will they try to egotistically get their big numbers, putting themselves ahead the others?  Or will one of them be inspired by their new Cuban neighbors and write an album called “Bay of Pigs” that consists of two ambient-disco songs? Okay, maybe I’m taking my analogies too far.

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