"I've heard of creatures who eat their babies, I wonder if they stop to think about the taste," Spencer Krug sang on Wednesday night at a semi-crowded Off-Broadway. The song, "Us Ones in Between," was the last in a show that stacked up a series of tangled and tense compositions, each a quicksand of Krug's fevered voice (it's a dealbreaker) and hyperliterate lyrics (also a dealbreaker). If Krug himself was tense and tangled all evening, hunched over his keyboard, it wasn't hard to figure out why: It can't be easy, night after night, performing songs so bent on catharsis, so consumed with summoning grandeur.
In Krug's Sunset Rubdown, we get a rare opportunity to experience Krug unfiltered and unadulterated, away from his many collaborations in the thriving Canadian indie scene (the main one being Wolf Parade). These associations have all made Krug prolific (too prolific?) and something of a songwriting enfant terrible during the last several years. What began as a solo project has grown to include a crackerjack band (special notice to Camilla Wynne Ingr's indispensible backing vocals) that has pursued an arty, angular style that's usually baroque and sometimes forbidding.
Just as much on album does the live show leverage itself against Krug's strained phrasings and manicured locutions, even when the songs sound more visceral, even intestinal, than on record. Opener "Black Swan" was propelled along by guitar squalls and the percussive cloud of two drum kits. "You Go on Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II)" sprayed words like bullets, adding part atop part until the tendrils of noise collapsed into themselves. The dance-prog of "Idiot Heart," easily the most exciting performance of the show, captured something uncommon: a brand-new classic. It also provoked one of roughly two smiles Krug cracked all night.
Older songs like "The Taming of the Hands That Came Back to Life" and "The Mending of the Gown" shaved away the stubble of the conceit that Sunset Rubdown albums only make sense as albums -- as self-mythologizing documents -- and don't as individual songs. Thematically, Krug may numb with a surplus of ideas. But he can still write songs that carry a warped gravity on their own. Even so, "Dragon's Lair," at more than ten minutes, moved from dolorous ballad to anthemic fist-pumper to self-help therapeutic to goof-off stomp.
As such, it was representative of the kind of Escherian pomp that makes fanatics or breaks the undecided (huffy walkouts were noticeable last night). You could just say it's the kind of music that takes effort and requires patience. Or you could not say that and -- as Krug himself suggested at the end of the show -- just "go home and watch movies on our laptops." Fortunately, those choices aren't always mutually exclusive.
The opening act was Tune-Yards, the one-woman band of Merrill Garbus. With a bassist last night, Garbus looped her pliant voice, West African drum patterns, snippets of found sound and whatever else she needed to recreate the ukulele-centric songs of her debut, Bird-Brains (recently re-released by 4AD). That album was recorded DIY with only shareware mixing software and a digital voice recorder. Based on her enthusiasm for a clutch of newer songs, we might get something special when she books time in a real studio.
Sunset Rubdown Setlist: Black Swan The Taming of the Hands That Came Back to Life Silver Moons The Empty Threats of Little Lord Idiot Heart Coming to at Dawn You Go on Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II) The Men Are Called Horsemen There The Mending of the Gown Dragon's Lair
Encore: Trumpet, Trumpet, Toot! Toot! Us Ones In Between