Alexis Petridis’s album of the week Moonface and Siinai: My Best Human Face review – strangeness and charm
No one could ever accuse Spencer Krug of a taking a languorous approach to his music. Over the last decade, the Canadian singer-songwriter’s output has been torrential: he’s released something like 20 albums and EPs, under an impressive variety of names. The most famous is Wolf Parade, a Montreal quartet whose very name can cause a certain kind of Pitchfork-scouring music fan’s heart to skip a beat: look online and you can find bloggers unironically describing their 2005 debut Apologies to the Queen Mary as “decade-defining”, as if rock music in the noughties changed irrevocably in its wake. Then there’s Frog Eyes, his original outfit and sometime backing band for Dan Bejar, better known as Destroyer. That association begat Swan Lake, an “indie supergroup” involving both Bejar and Krug, whose sound the latter enticingly compared to “a boar drowning in a tar pit”. There’s also Sunset Rubdown and the Fifths of Seven – challengingly described a “Canadian instrumental string/piano/accordion trio” – and Krug’s solo project, Moonface.
Even compared with a band who sound like a boar drowning in a tar pit and an instrumental string/piano/accordion trio, Moonface often seems the most abstruse and arcane of the lot. At one juncture the big idea seemed to be making records that focused on a single instrument: Krug’s first release in this guise was a 20-minute track based on the marimba; the second, an album called Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped, offered up songs performed on what sounded like the kind of electronic keyboard sold by Argos in the mid-80s; its follow-up, Julia With Blue Jeans On, was comprised entirely of stark piano ballads. In between, Moonface occasionally releases albums made in collaboration with a Finnish Krautrock-inspired instrumental band called Siinai.
With the best will in the world, a Pitchfork-rated indie rock auteur with avant garde leanings collaborating with a Finnish Krautrock-inspired instrumental band is not a pitch likely to cause Amazon’s server to crash as the general public excitedly descend en masse, credit card details in hand. Nevertheless, the marked thing about their second album together is how straightforwardly appealing the songs are. The arrangements Siinai cook up on My Best Human Face are really intriguing – The arrangements Siinai cook up on My Best Human Face are really intriguing – a thrilling, supercharged, stadium-sized version of Krautrock’s motoric pounding on Risto’s Riff; the sickly-sounding, slap-bass-driven take on 80s AOR that decorates City Wrecker; Prairie Boy’s weird blend of funk and intricate post-rock guitar riffing.
There are moments of elliptical strangeness. Prairie Boy builds and builds towards a heady climax that never arrives, the track instead suddenly cutting off as if someone’s hit the pause button by accident; the anthemic chorus of Risto’s Riff invites the listener to punch the air cathartically to the improbable words, “At least I’m not a photographer.” But you’re never struck by a sense of ostentatious, wilful obscurity, the kind of thing addressed on opener The Nightclub Artiste. “Well you could say it was so good it could not be understood,” Krug sings, “which is another way to say it was so weird it just doesn’t matter – which is another way to say it was bad.” Accordingly, you’re instead struck by how good a songwriter Krug is, how well the shifting sonic palette of the album serves the melodies, which are almost uniformly incredibly potent. City Wrecker has a lovely, melancholy drifting quality that perfectly fits its lyric, a rumination on the sadness of moving on. The closing The Queen of Both Light and Darknessmanages to be rousing and epic – its chorus is assisted by a mass of choral voices – without slipping into bombast. They Call Themselves Old Punks even succeeds in turning the perennially tiresome US indie rock pastime of worrying about credibility into something you might want to listen to.
Even in the corner of the musical universe where Spencer Krug is hailed as a pivotal genius, where trembling journalists write gushing profiles as if they’re in the presence of a superstar (“Spencer Krug doesn’t like to be fawned over. It’s uncomfortable. It’s too much pressure”) My Best Human Face was slightly overlooked. Around the time of its release, Wolf Parade reformed, released a new EP and played a sold-out, five-night residency in New York (albeit in a venue that holds 575 people, rather than 20,000): what price their frontman’s latest solo project against the opportunity to hear their decade-defining back catalogue live? That seems like a shame, because My Best Human Face is inventive and clever and packed with fantastic songs. It’s the kind of album you suspect more people would like if they got to hear it, the kind that ought to transcend a rabid cult following.