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Swan Lake - Beast Moans

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Artist: Swan Lake

Album: Beast Moans

Label: Jagjaguwar

Review date: Nov. 20, 2006

For what it's worth, the boringly collegiate figure of Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of Hades, was the first image that put Beast Moans into any kind of manageable context for me. It's not really hard to get there: Swan Lake, a Canadian bug-eyed troubadour supergroup made up of Destroyer's Dan Bejar, Wolf Parade's Spencer Krug, and Frog Eyes' Carey Mercer, is as three-headed a beast as they come, and the moans of their debut the tortured, malnourished melodies and the strained, bilious atmospherics sound distinctly hellish. Beast Moans is ugly, joyfully and unapologetically so, but just as the gatekeeper doesn't sum up the complexities of hell, there has to be something to it beyond ugliness.

Of course Hades is a tough initial point of comparison to rebound from, but a record as stridently chaotic as this demands some lofty interpretive framework or other, and hell is a strangely forgiving one. Beast Moans is a place where songs shudder to go, where the tuneful and lyrically canny rue their fates and dream only of living again. The concepts are fine; the cruel master stroke is the disdain Swan Lake show for structure, for linearity, for the things that make songs songs. Save "All Fires," a depressive and deflated would-be Wolf Parade number, nothing stands up as a stable, fully realized piece: "A Venue Called Rubella" is a 40-second Destroyer cassette stuck in a car wash, "Are You Swimming In Her Pools?" is a feverish call-and-response between Krug and Tony Hale's karaoke Krug impression and those are the assertive ones. The rest, from the boggy "Widow's Walk" to the dizzy "Shooting Rockets," blend into a consumptive chorus of half-bodied ideas, explored with little attention span or consistency (although an organ that sounds like "Light My Fire" at 22 rpm makes pretty regular appearances).

But look, already there's something besides ugliness to talk about. The provocative thing about the Swan Lake project is not its genesis, nor the song-by-song distribution of each member's influence, nor even the degree to which their individual tics coalesce into a soupy sort of unity. It's that Bejar, Krug and Mercer as we know them are songwriters, venerated not for their studio skills or off-kilter arrangements but for the idiosyncratic ways they tweak the parameters of familiar pop composition. (To wit, Mercer initially referred to Swan Lake as "The Songwriters Project.") Here, by contrast, is a record doggedly intent on sounding ugly one trusts, maybe hopes, that throwing coherent songcraft to the dogs was a conscious means to that end and on transcending the familiarities of each individual contributor.

And this is where Beast Moans is a success: it obscures its authorship beyond pinpoint. It's too frothy and hedonistic to be just Bejar, too laconic and summery for Krug or Mercer. The residue it leaves, rather than the immediate reward of a casual listen to Destroyer or Wolf Parade or Frog Eyes (or the New Pornographers or Sunset Rubdown, for that matter), is an insight into the collective psychosis that dreamed it up in the first place. "The Partisan But He's Got To Know" is a horror of a song, but it's a devil of a case study. (Hell is hell, but it's a lot more intriguing than heaven.) As a relic relief map of an endearing school of Canadian pop weirdness, Swan Lake's first offering is an accomplishment; still, that doesn't make teasing the occasional shining strand out of so much ugliness any less of a chore.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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