There’s a base magic to Spencer Krug’s music. Consider the early Sunset Rubdown track, “We Got Broken Eyes.” In terms of sound quality, it leaves much to be desired; the keyboard sounds are abrasive, and the percussion lacks structure. Nevertheless, the listener is hypnotized by a spew of barely discernable, mantra-like lyric nonsense, punctuated by the droning chords of a shitty-keyboard run through a distorted forty-watt amplifier, evoking a strange mix of horror and fascination.
"We Got Broken Eyes" (unreleased) by Sunset Rubdown. Used with permission.
This combination of low-fi, nightmarish production and raw creative energy characterize Sunset Rubdown’s first two albums, Snake’s Got a Leg and Shut up I Am Dreaming, and represent the strongest merits of Krug’s work. Holding much in common with “We Got Broken Eyes,” they sound like collections of hymns from a post-urban, electrified shaman. On Dragonslayer, Sunset Rubdown’s latest album, Krug trades in his dark, priestly garb for causal business attire – a natural progression, considering Random Spirit Lover’s polished production. In doing so, Krug has exchanged his creative rawness, the otherworldly power of his song writing, for a more stable (read: lackluster) refinement. The result is a loss of Sunset Rubdown’s primary merits and the creation of another over-hyped, mediocre indie record.
Sure, there are strong tracks on the album—particularly, “Paper Lace,” “You Go on Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II),” and “Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh!” —and considering the album has only 8 tracks, a strong case can be made for giving it a listen. Yet in other places, the album’s blandness and occasional outright awfulness, speaks otherwise (specifically, the unforgivably long and tedious end track, “Dragon’s Lair”). Worse, even the best tracks are marred by a few problems that plague the entire record—weak lyric composition and questionable outsourcing of vocal parts.
"You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II) from Dragonslayer, by Sunset Rubdown. Used with permission.
Whether Krug changed his creative process while writing lyrics for this album is unknown, but it definitely appears so. Earlier in his career, his outbursts of incoherent, surrealist imagery had a grace and elegance about them, but sometime after Shut Up I am Dreaming, evident in both Random Spirit Lover and his tracks on the most recent Swan Lake album, a newly arisen self-consciousness seems to have appeared, leading to contrived and uninspired writing.
Take, for instance, the words at the end of “Black Swan,” “my heart is a kingdom, where the king is a heart; my heart is king, the king of hearts,” and “You Go on Ahead,” “if there are two eyes in my head, there are four seasons in a year.” Terrible enough when read aloud, in their musical context, they sound worse. Sung initially at the end of decrescendoed breakdowns, these sentences sound like blog poetry. The results are moments of memorable indie kitsch—endearingly laughable, but not to be taken seriously.
As much as the album lacks lyric sharpness, the music also lacks energy and inspiration. At times, it feels like Krug is singing karaoke over a midi rendition of an old Block Party album. The tracks trudge onward, rarely straining to express themselves with the urgency of early Sunset Rubdown recordings. What is disappointing is that the space for such expression can be hear in many of the songs, only the band never takes advantage of it. (As evidence, check out the difference in feel of the Black Cab Sessions’ live recording of “You Go on Ahead” and the record version).
Also contributing to the pervasive lack of energy is the prominence of Camilla Wynne Ingr voice. It’s not awful, only unfit for Krug’s composition—the light, ghost-like singing has unwelcome effects on the music. In having Camilla periodically take the lead, a number of potentially compelling bridges are rendered impotent and forgettable. A good example is found at the end of Silver Moons. Around 3:25 Camilla begins an outro chant, which makes confused gestures towards a build. The listener receives mixed signals: Ingr’s whisper-thin voice clashes with Krug’s quivering harmonies and the building instrumentation.
Although Dragonslayer is an improvement from Sunset Rubdown’s last album, Random Spirit Lover, the question remains as to whether the improvements are strong enough to merit purchase/attention. For fans of Krug and Sunset Rubdown, the album is worth a couple of listens; being familiar with Krug’s music, they will be able to appreciate the intentions of the half-baked recordings. Everyone else should simply pick up a copy of Shut Up I am Dreaming and wait to find a two-dollar copy of Dragonslayer in a used record store.
Zach Marr is a writer and translator living in Austin, TX.