It’s really not Wolf Parade’s fault. Five years ago, when the Canadian rock fetish was just getting sexy and every new act seemed to be named after some kind of Canis lupus, Apologies to the Queen Mary rocked our cores before lighting our own hearts on fire. With a debut album that stellar and a wave of hype washing across the continent, there really was nowhere else to go but down.
While 2008’s At Mount Zoomer may have been more of a commercial success, it suffered the sophomore slump status simply by not being as exceptional as Apologies. It comes as no surprise, then, that songwriters Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner have spent the past few years doing their best work with side projects Sunset Rubdown and Handsome Furs, respectively.
Expo 86 finds the guys stuck in the same style but lacking the stripped down vulnerability and frantic feeling that marked their debut. Krug’s compositions have abandoned the jangly, Modest Mouse rawness that made tracks like ‘Grounds for Divorce’ and ‘I’ll Believe in Anything’ so affecting, instead spending the majority of his tracks wadding through excess. His affection for prog rock heaviness, sadly, weighs down the otherwise sparkling melodies of ‘Cloud Shadow on the Mountain’ and What Did My Lover Say? (It Always Had to Go This Way)’. Minimalism, this ain’t.
The best parts of Expo 86 owe more to Boeckner, who delivers the album’s standout tracks: the synth-driven dance number ‘Ghost Pressure’ and ‘Yulia’, the record’s poppiest and most catchy cut. While Krug’s Sunset Rubdown got all the attention and accolades last year with Dragonslayer, Boeckner more than pulls his weight here.
The rest of Expo 86 is interesting but abrasive, and comes on a little too strong. For a band that seemed to have such a good handle on subtlety, the record is all strut and bluster, creating a sonic experience that feels overwhelming. Each of the eleven tracks is loud and fast, and quite a few could stand to have a minute or more shaved off, as the various solos (keyboards! guitar! drums!) begin to wear thin.
But it’s not a bad album, or even close to one. There’s fine musicianship on display throughout, and the urgent vocals and fast chords make the record feel pulsating, if not personal. Krug’s quirky lyricism, which was so endearing on Apologies, has gone off the deep end into stream of consciousness babble, and it’s hard to really get what either him or Boeckner is yelping about. But the main problem with Expo 86 is what it isn’t, which is neither a record as seminal as Apologies nor an evolution of the band’s sound into uncharted territory. But hey, you can’t blame the guys for trying.