Wouldn’t you know it? The deadline for our own “Best of 2006” project has come and gone and here I am, a scant forty days to go in the year, reviewing one of the best albums so far. Beast Moans is far from a mere honorable mention or a ‘by the way, this one’s good, too.’ It is also a distant cry from the suggestion made by the album’s title. Rather than moans of beasts, this ‘supergroup’ project is a spectacular symphony of three different styles of rock songwriting, brought together into one gleeful celebration of weirdness. You see, Beast Moans is a collaboration between Dan Bejar (you know him as Destroyer, or the guy with the weird voice in the New Pornographers), Spencer Krug (he of the Wolf Parade and the Sunset Rubdown) and Carey Mercer (of Frog Eyes). Taken separately, each one can stand strong as a force in indie rock, but together, well, that’s something stronger entirely. In fact, and I know I’ll get hate mail for this, I would venture to say that Swan Lake is an even better collaborative effort than the New Pornographers.
They originally wanted to be called Thunder Cloud, but that name had apparently been taken. So, they ‘settled’ for Swan Lake. Personally, I think it was kismet. First of all, this record is kind of an indie rock ballet with twists and leaps and even somewhat of an aria towards the end. Then there’s the fact that the original Swan Lake is done, alternately, in three or four acts. This album can be taken as the result of three acts’ worth of music from each contributor, or even as four groupings of songs, with an intro, that makes up one full-length symphony. Then there’s the additional info that some of it was recorded in the small summer town of Shawnigan Lake in Victoria, British Columbia. Googling this west coast utopian village brings up a boarding school filled with attractive teenagers that could either be a Hogwart’s-like institution or a training ground for the future underground leaders of the world. Take your pick.
Listening to Beast Moans is like listening to every Bowie era at one time. You have the Hunky Dora-era Bejar mixing it up with the Eno-era Mercer and the Aladdin Sane-era Krug, and it all comes together beautifully. Bejar kicks off the album with an introductory passage called “Widow’s Walk,” a track that features more ‘la-da-da’s than actual lyrics, easing you into the psych-rock brilliance that awaits. Krug follows that up with “Nubile Days,” using the same ‘la-la-la’ pattern as a linking point, but veering off into a keyboard-driven prog wonderland. Mercer, arguably the weirdest of the three, follows that with “City Calls,” a further descent into madness, thanks to the hollow echoed vocals with only occasional moments of clarity. This first `act’ of Beast Moans consists of this triad of songs, possibly the most challenging of the album, but like great drama, the second act brings the conflict, which is always more compelling, and the third and fourth bring resolution.
The cycle begins anew with Bejar’s late Beatles-esque “A Venue Called Rubella,” an odd, literary and dreamlike rock and roll carnival song that really has its best moments with the repeated title at the close. Krug ups the ante with the hypnotic “All Fires,” a song that plays like Modest Mouse covering the Pixies. I’m not sure there’s been a better piece of poetry all year than the haunting lines about a flood affecting 1000 townspeople and the steeple they tore apart, “500 pieces means 500 float / 1000 people means 500 don’t.” The near-rockabilly freakout of “The Partisan But He’s Got To Know” closes this trio with Mercer once again taking the lead, but Bejar singing masterful backup.
“The Freedom” begins tentatively with some pre-recording studio chatter and a false start before Bejar pours out another spectacular track. Whereas most popular songwriters rely heavily on the `baby’s’ and `yeah’s,’ Bejar writes on another level, “I put a hex on the telephone line that brought your voice to me, disembodied and cheapening everything it used to mean.” The harmonic chimes at the end of “Petersburg, Liberty Theater, 1914” are one of the highlights of this album full of spectacular moments, and will surely end up being one of the memorable touchstones of the record. “Bluebird” is another Krug masterpiece, finding him emoting Bowie even more than Bejar. Mercer crafts intricate beauty out of a few Cure-like guitar licks and layered instrumentation with his best track, “Pleasure Vessels.” And then comes the aria, Spencer Krug’s sixties folk-pop masterpiece “Are You Swimming In Her Pools?” Krug not only masters the music, but also rivals Bejar in the lyric category, “Brace yourself for the sound of bleeding, because bleeding hearts bleed, and please is not a word that I ever said quietly.” The album ends with the footnote of “Shooting Rockets,” the longest song on the record, and possibly the most collaborative. Although Bejar has been credited as writing the song, there are elements of Mercer (the hollow and echoed vocal style) and Krug (the melodic guitars and modern rock feel toward the middle and end) throughout.
The themes of Beast Moans might not be readily apparent, ideas having to be sussed out with careful reading and attentive listening. The concepts of friendship and relationships dot the landscape of the record, but that message is most readily heard in the give and take of the music, rather than the sometimes-cryptic lyrics. Upon listening to Beast Moans, one can sense that these three guys love playing together and sometimes, in fact, inspire each other. This is why I made the statement earlier about the New Pornographers. The group is essentially A.C. Newman’s. Sure, Bejar and Neko Case add their touches, but when it comes right down to it, it’s Newman’s baby. Swan Lake, though songs can be credited to its individual contributors, is truly a group endeavor. Each member lives and breathes each track, adding their own flourishes and signatures before the song becomes fully formed. Beast Moans deserves to be counted as one of the best records of the year, and with Bejar having already released one of the best of his career just a few short months ago, that’s one hell of a good year for this Canadian.