Review: Sunset Rubdown — Dragonslayer
The new release by Sunset Rubdown is as epic as the title Dragonslayer might suggest, but it’s a new kind of epic, one that isn’t necessarily “soaring” or “sleek” like that kind of fantastic endeavor implies; and thank goodness for that, since part of Spencer Krug’s appeal is the scruffy, ramshackle charm of his songwriting (you’ll recognize that fretful singing voice from his other band, Wolf Parade). This knight rides off to fight dragons wearing cardboard armor and a wooden sword. Each song averages 5-6 minutes in length — the longest clocks in at over ten — so even at a trim track-listing of only nine songs, diving into Dragonslayer can be a little daunting at first. Fear not; these off-kilter mini-rock operas flourish within their extra time and space with very few slack moments.
The most out-and-out rock opera on the new record is “Black Swan,” something of a centerpiece, a slow-burner with sporadic outbreaks of frantic rock and layers of chanting that build to a climax. Camilla Wynne Ingr’s assured backing vocals add a nice heft and balance whenever the album threatens to veer too much into pure quirk, and also contributes to some of the more sing-along moments, like the end of “Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh!” The second track, “Idiot Heart,” is the most immediately gratifying. It starts with a chug-chug of the electric guitar that threatens to explode into rawk, and although the song does indeed rock pretty hard, Krug and co. exercise a measure of restraint that keeps tension bubbling just under the surface throughout. Even the chiming, shredded guitar solos float in the background like a dream while the percussion and Krug’s yelping vocals take first position. The song ends with a plaintive call-and-response kiss-off: “I hope you die/ in a decent pair of shoes,/ you’ve got a lot of long walking to do / where you’re going to.” What would any good epic be without a trip to the underworld?
Not surprisingly, the most straightforward song here, “Paper Lace,” is also the weakest; Krug’s songwriting is best when he steers away from more conventional pop structures. The album makes a strong comeback immediately after with “You Go On Ahead,” a rival against “Idiot Heart” for the strongest cut. Ending with the excessively long “Dragon’s Lair” might have been too ambitious; the band didn’t quite up the ante enough to get through ten and a half minutes unscathed. It’s not a bad closer, but for an album full of highlights, Dragonslayer ends on a relatively low note. But considering that this is also an album full of songs that grow in the mind over time, you might want to give that last track a fair chance, too.
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