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CD Review: Swan Lake Releases Pleasant But Muddled Debut

Collaboration of Acclaimed Indie Songwriters Lacks the Right Chemistry

By Andrew Lee

Swan Lake

Beast Moans

Jagjaguwar Records

Swan Lake’s member list reads like a Canadiophile’s indie dream-team with members including Daniel Bejar of Destroyer, Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes, and Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade, to give it certifiable super-group status. Frog Eyes, which had previously taken up duty as Bejar’s backing band on a Destroyer EP, also counts Krug as a former member, so it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to foresee a collaboration between all three frontmen. Such a friendly, established rapport can be a welcome ingredient to any musical partnership. But in the case of Swan Lake’s Beast Moans, the collaboration appears to have fostered an atmosphere of moderate complacency among Bejar, Mercer, and Krug, thus diminishing the impact of what could have otherwise been an excellent record.

Beast Moans is a classic case of too many auteurs spoiling the oeuvre: three esoteric rockers hole up in various remote Canadian cottages to record each other’s tuneful musings. The good news is that Swan Lake’s efforts provide plenty of study material for eager indie cross-breeders. The distinct influence of each individual’s bands working in tandem can be regularly detected. “Widow’s Walk” is Wolf Parade meets Destroyer, “A Venue Called Rubella” is Destroyer meets Frog Eyes, while “Bluebird” completes the circle by combining influences from Frog Eyes and Sunset Rubdown (Spencer Krug’s, uh, third band).

So while the various stylistic dualities make their requisite appearances, it’s in a clumsier way than it should have been. All three take frequent vocalist duty and often share it, creating a confusing clash of melody that could almost be mistaken for a studio mash-up of two different songs. The reality was probably not far akin from that. Tracks such as “A Venue Called Rubella” and “Shooting Rockets” are guilty of overpopulated arrangements, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the mix were more refined. The band, however, took the unfortunate step of self-producing the record, and it appears they weren’t up to the task of sifting through the mess of it all.

That’s not to say Beast Moans isn’t somewhat of a glorious mess. There are times during the album when it’s clear someone took the reins for that particular song. “All Fires” is one of Spencer Krug’s best slices of acoustic defeatism, and the rest of the band masterfully pulls away just enough to give him space to echo while still enriching the despair with pained guitar tremolos. Bejar typically waxes verbose, then ironically commands for “the freedom to be alone with the freedom” above a charging acoustic strum and an arpeggiating keyboard in “The Freedom.” One wishes that Swan Lake could have more consistently found that type of authoritative voice.

One wonders whether the bandmates’ mutual admiration and respect tricked each of them into thinking that they didn’t need to bring their best ideas to the drawing board because someone else would. The collective experience of Swan Lake’s members then becomes a double-edged sword that provides them with enough sensibility to avoid recording outright duds but deprives them of the edge needed to push the material to its potential. Without something to prove, Swan Lake’s debut record reaches vainly for a reason to exist beyond being just an agreeable experiment.