Snake's Got a Leg
[Global Symphonic; 2005]
One of the byproducts of the great backlash against indie rock that occurred in the early '00s is the notion that lo-fi is an illegitimate tool, the go-to cover-up for artists short on cash, patience, and ideas. It's an understandable aversion, given the long trail of refuse left in the wake of Slanted & Enchanted and Bee Thousand; bands seemed to think a respectable career could be bought with a four-track and a whole lotta reverb. But it's also easy to forget what an effective tool the home-studio process can be when used properly-- creating unexpected, unique sounds and enveloping the music in an intimate blanket.
Spencer Krug's project under the name Sunset Rubdown seems to be aware of the tightrope that needs to be walked with lo-fi production, but he can't help ending up on the wrong side more often than not. Krug can be found spending his days with animal-themed acts Frog Eyes and Wolf Parade, but saves his nights for recording sparse, echo-dipped ballads for this moniker, at least one of which has already been recycled for one of his other bands' more-fidelitous recordings. Snake's Got a Leg therefore seems a little bit like a solo project, a little bit like demos, and the music contained within is similarly torn between fully realized and undercooked.
The elements Krug makes most prominent in his bedroom studio are his own pinched, Bowie-esque voice and a variety of keyboards, both outlined in a thick border of fuzz by heaping helpings of reverb. The echobox treatment does a good job of filling in the gaps left by the spare arrangements, and gives what are presumably rather normal instruments an extraterrestrial flair, as with the organ or Rhodes or Two-buck Casio that "I'll Believe in Anything You'll Believe in Anything" floats on. Pretty-okay acoustic & singin' tracks like "Stadiums and Shrines" or "I Know the Weight of Your Throat" might still sound like a guy in a basement with a tape-recorder, but at least the skillful application of lo-fi makes the song sound like it was made in a haunted basement, and sometime in the 1920's to boot.
Unfortunately, the audio environment also makes it very difficult to tell whether there's anything of substance beneath the sea of hiss. Krug's Ziggy Stardust vocals will probably make or break the album for most people; I can already see the "for fans of Arcade Fire & Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!" stickers. If you can't swallow this kind of over-dramatized singing, there's little to distract you on Snake's Got a Leg, as Krug doesn't add much more than the occasional off-rhythm handclap or ghostly accordion to the piano and guitar accompaniments.
Even instrumental tracks won't satisfy: the musicbox-like "Sol's Song" is relentlessly cyclical, and the promisingly electronic "Cecil's Bells" fragments and fades out before achieving anything more than making weird noises. But the production of weird noises oftentimes seem the main goal of Sunset Rubdown, with the rare intrusions of solid songwriting ("Snake's Got a Leg II", "I'll Believe in Anything") feeling as accidental as the distorted notes.
Unlike most lo-fi artists, determining whether Krug is a shallow talent hiding behind his Tascam can be somewhat objectively tested, thanks to the Wolf Parade material seeping out this summer. In that professionally recorded setting, Krug's songs sound simultaneously less compelling and more complete than the material on Sunset Rubdown-- Wolf Parade are another of the above-average indie-compendium type acts we can't help falling in love with, but the proper studio reins in some of the weirdness of Krug's yelps. Ultimately, however, with the two album's near-simultaneous release, the more accessible Wolf Parade likely makes the rough-edged lo-fi experiments of Sunset Rubdown a mere novelty throwback.
-Rob Mitchum, July 12, 2005