Wolf Parade should be the toast of the indie world right now. Not only did they arrive on the scene with 2005’s “Apologies to the Queen Mary” and introduce us all to two of music’s most formidable songwriting talents in Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner, but that singular album also brought forth their two main projects separate from one another – Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs. Given the way both of those bands subsequently broke out as a result, it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise if Wolf Parade never made another album. Still, 2008 brought Wolf Parade’s sophmore record “At Mount Zoomer”, and while it failed to reach the dizzying heights of its predecessor, the general praise for this band and the two main talents behind it remained largely intact. Now with one more Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs album apiece released last year, Krug and Boeckner apparently haven’t nearly run out of material as evidenced by the third Wolf Parade record “Expo 86” being released this week.
The most interesting thing about how Wolf Parade works is the way these two great artists work with one another. Both Krug and Boeckner have their own individual songwriting styles, and they tend to split the albums down the middle when it comes to who writes what. Boeckner was clearly the weaker link on “Apologies to the Queen Mary”, but of course he was also the one with less experience. Krug played the moody and wordy poet while Boeckner evoked the punk rock ethos and came up with quicker and sharper melodies as a smart contrast. There was a remarkable cohesion between the two guys anyways, and that’s what made the album so special. “At Mount Zoomer” lost a little bit of that intermingling perhaps mostly because everyone was keeping a close eye on exactly who was writing and singing what. The dynamic was still there, but it felt like both guys had retreated to their own corners and didn’t quite meet in the middle for their sophmore effort. Where “Expo 86” comes in is somewhere right in between those first two albums.
One of the biggest pluses “Expo 86” has to offer is the exceptionally improved songwriting by Dan Boeckner. He sounds as inspired as he did on “Face Control”, the Handsome Furs record released last year that showed remarkable progression from a guy who seemingly always favored energy over words. This new Wolf Parade album has him competing toe to toe with Krug, and that brings the cohesion back which made them such an exceptional band in the first place. Unless you’re looking at the songwriting credits, there are moments when it is challenging to determine exactly who wrote what, and with an increased reliance on vocal interplay between Krug and Boeckner, at times you can’t even fully be clear who’s got the lead vocal. And so for the first time it really sounds less like Wolf Parade are a collection of great talents and more like a fully formed and functional band. Also beneficial is the return of the nervous energy that dominated their first album in a really good way. The material here may be a little darker in general, but the synths play it off well to add warmth and avoid turning this into an all-out depressing affair.
The worst part about “Expo 86” is that many of its biggest strengths are also its biggest weaknesses. What with Boeckner’s much stronger presence on the album and the songs all coming off on equal footing more or less, there’s little to nothing that truly stands out. Everything sounds pretty great, and it is for the most part, but in terms of hard-hitters like “I’ll Believe In Anything” or “Shine A Light”, there’s a lack of distinction on the new album. “What Did My Lover Say (It Always Had to Go This Way)” is probably the closest thing to a legitimate hit on the record despite it being nearly 6 minutes long. But in this case Wolf Parade leave the absolute best for last, as “Cave-O-Sapien” is a slice of energetic and fun brilliance that’s one of their finest moments not only on this album but across the band’s entire catalogue. Once those 6+ minutes have finally expired along with the album itself, you come away with the feeling that everything was just left on the table and this band has nothing left to give. It’s just a shame that there aren’t more of those sorts of songs on “Expo 86”. Instead much of the record takes a middle of the road approach and satisfies in that regard. It partly begs the question of whether or not Krug and Boeckner are really delivering their best material on this album, or if they’re purposely saving most of it for their individual projects Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs. However things are working out, Wolf Parade remains a band to keep a very close eye on. “Expo 86” may lack the sharp step forwards this band needs to place them at the top of the indie cred pile again, but it does earn them back a bit of the mojo they lost on their last record.