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Live: Sunset Rubdown at the Echoplex

June 24, 2009 |  1:51 pm


A list of the few experiences more intense than watching a Sunset Rubdown show: skydiving, Ultimate Fighting with Seth "The Silverback" Petruzelli, meeting your in-laws for the first time while stoned, a game of professional jai alai (hey, it is the fastest sport on Earth).

Watching Spencer Krug sing is like smoking a pack of unfiltered, tar-smothered cigarettes. You’re left out of breath, knees buckling, ringed by an acrid aftertaste of death and dizziness. Calling it haunting is an understatement -- his wobbly, knuckle-ball wail suggests a "Labyrinth"-era David Bowie possessed by Banquo’s ghost. 

His band, Sunset Rubdown, is closer to mainline than mainstream — creating a shaggy, spaghetti sauce-stained and skewed pop that disregards any pretenses toward pleasantries. Throughout their sweltering show Tuesday night at the Echoplex, I vacillated between wondering why the place hadn’t been sold out for months, and marveling that anyone had showed up at all.

The Montreal five-piece make a profoundly personal music -- doom ballads so dire that they teeter toward embarrassing. Listening to them in public feels less like mutual catharsis and more like getting caught in the act. Employing complex prog-rock structures as a carapace to conceal confessional, 4 a.m. hallucinations, Krug’s songs are such that they send people drunkenly texting their exes mid-show. (Either that, or everyone was just Twittering). 

With a lyrical fixation on chimerical creatures ranging from dragons, to Icarus and Apollo, to black swans, Krug employs a semiotics simultaneously opaque and translucently ridiculous. Yet both live and on wax, it's consistently nothing short of brilliant.

Alternating between guitar and a dilapidated Yamaha keyboard, Krug doesn’t talk much onstage. He doesn’t do many interviews either, once reportedly claiming that every time he does one, a little bit of him dies -- a statement both slightly hysterical and necessary. Explaining away his lyrics or methologies would only lessen their impact. Over the course of its last three albums, the band has amassed a bruising and beautiful collection of songs, seemingly snatched from some strange shadow land between dream, myth and memory.

During the course of the 90-minute set, drawing primarily from 2007’s “Random Spirit Lover,” and their latest spectacular effort, “Dragonslayer,” the band displayed its evolution from a Wolf Parade side project into one of the most artistically vital outfits in indie. With percussionist-keyboardist-vocalist Camilla Wynne Ingr assuming an ever greater role, her spectral vocals helped soften the unhinged violence of Krug’s bray, particularly on “Idiot Heart,” and “Silver Moons.” Much more than side men, the rest of the band continued to evince a profound connection with Krug’s compositions, expanding, contracting and twisting the involute arrangements with a bubble gum ease.

But despite his shyness, the baby-faced Krug was the clear centerpiece. Flanked by a spare, spindly Christmas tree seemingly stolen from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and ornamented with only a single sparkling bulb on top, the image both reconciled and illuminated the band’s polarities and peculiarities. 

Sunset Rubdown make music to bridge those big binary dilemmas of existence: between familiarity and the alien, love and loss, death and re-birth, myth and the mundane. If Spencer Krug isn’t the best songwriter around, he’s dangerously close — though they really should supply oxygen masks next time.

-- Jeff Weiss

Photo: David Horvitz