There was a time when the thought of a Canadian supergroup would have caused nothing but laughter. Any hope in Canada that formed due to the Band’s success was dashed by the sappiness of years of Loverboy, Corey Hart, Shania Twain, Barenaked Ladies (the list could go on). But radio started to suck, people started reading music-review Web sites and then Broken Social Scene made a really good record. Or something like that.
Either way, Swan Lake comprises three members, all of whom are part of various other noted Canadian indie bands: Dan Bejar (Destroyer, New Pornographers), Spencer Krug (Frog Eyes) and Carey Mercer (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown). To say that this collaboration is their first conscious album is correct, but all have worked together before. Frog Eyes aided Bejar on two Destroyer albums (Your Blues, Notorious Lightning and Other Works), and Krug and Mercer have often collaborated and been housemates. Poetic songcraft, lo-fi rock riffs, and distinct experimentation have defined much of their careers. So, Beast Moans holds little surprise. It sounds as it should: songs were written by individual members, then recorded and experimented within the studio (for five weeks). It is a melodic, sonic, fuzzy chaos in which each member’s own musical touches periodically emerge.
The instrumentation follows Bejar’s stilted humming on album opener "Widow’s Walk," as though it is receiving the idea to play along. Most of the remaining tracks follow this format. The slow start of "A Venue Called Rubella" becomes a raucous sing-along, while Bejar’s "The Freedom" builds only to deteriorate into the slow, droning "Petersburg, Liberty Theater, 1914," which returns to an upbeat organ and tambourine tune. The album’s instruments, which are somewhat distanced from one another, form longer structures that flow into one another and become more connected than separated. Although there are distinct tracks, most of the album flows together in pieces that do not necessarily follow track separation. At times, the songs of Beast Moans bare little resemblance to what is usually considered a song. They sound as if the lyrics and the music are disconnected — an accompaniment rather than a song.
Sounds eventually coordinate and turn into melodies. Lines, which are at first more recognizable as poetry, transform into lyrical choruses. Tracks such as "Nubile Days" and "The Pollenated Girls" showcase Swan Lake’s abundant vocabulary and poetic skill but never gain the momentum to become more than poems with somewhat eerie background music. When the elements of the album balance and momentum is sustained, Swan Lake is able to create songs such as the faith-themed "All Fires" and the beautiful "Are You Swimming In Her Pools?" The group accomplishes not only a disconnection from common structure but also a disconnection from time. Upbeat organ and drum, with lofty strings and guitar in "Pools" surround eloquent lines such as: "And does she fucking know/ How the lines that appear around your eyes when/ you are smiling are revered for the way in which/ they always reappear?" Although "Pollinated Girls" contains the antiquated lines, "I am dizzy like some earl/ who had stumbled upon a worker in peril/ and saved his skin for the tribunal’s herald!," the era from which these songs emerge is purposely distorted.
It is unclear who played what role in the crafting of Beast Moans. Transcendental lyrics that sound as though they were written either in the future or three hundred years ago are presented with the fragile anxiety common in the songs of Krug and Mercer. Sometimes to their benefit, sometimes not. The aura surrounding these Canadian individuals is perhaps due to their distinct songwriting — and their ubiquity. They are attached to several other bands but exude a categorical image of their own. Although they know how to write straightforward pop (such as in the New Pornographers), they consciously are trying to push the boundaries of what is acceptable. Although they rightfully succeed at getting our attention by stretching those boundaries in a manner in which songs emerge out of noise (or beast moans), the product, however, is not always worthy.
Perhaps titling the name of their collaboration after a nineteenth-century Russian opera about a girl turned into a swan is an ode to when such fantastic stories were mainstream. Or it could be that they recorded most of the album near Canada’s Shawnigan Lake. Artist Shary Boyle’s haunting William Blake-esque album artwork and their former name (The Songwriter’s Project) suggests their intention of becoming a movement, not unlike poetical ones. Swan Lake has the literariness of the Decemberist’s Colin Meloy, but its members are the kids with the intentional nerd glasses in the poetry workshop — not the fiction one.
"All Fires" MP3
"The Freedom" MP3