Providing the latest evidence that the loop pedal is the best thing to happen to one-person bands since the harmonica holder, Merrill Garbus, who performs as tUnE-yArDs, opened up the show with a collection of tunes in which she accompanied her voice and ukulele with simple looped beats made with a floor tom and snare, throwing in the occasional collage of layered oohs and ahhs and other vocalizations. (A bassist and guitarist also provided subtle backup on a couple songs.) Of course, this is a tool available to any bedroom folkie these days, but Garbus proved herself far more than just any bedroom folkie. Short and squat, barefoot and with her face painted, she had quite a stage presence before she opened her mouth, but it was her voice, a husky yet slightly nasal alto that she wielded with such power, range and control that I wondered if she was classically trained, that really sold her quirky, jaunty pop songs. Garbus recently signed to 4AD and is on tour not only with Sunset Rubdown but also with art-rock darlings du jour Dirty Projectors, so I wouldn't be surprised to see her profile rise quickly and soon.
The last time Sunset Rubdown came to Denver was in April 2007, when the band opened for Xiu Xiu at the hi-dive; back then, everyone still characterized the band as Spencer Krug's side project, and the shy songwriter faced his bandmates on stage and complained sheepishly about his profuse sweating. Even then, he was one of indie rock's most promising--and busiest--figures, but in the two and a half years since, he's released two more albums with Sunset Rubdown (including this year's superb Dragonslayer) as well as one more each with Wolf Parade and Swan Lake, and has become, in my opinion, one of the best songwriters of the decade. And I'm not sure how much it matters which is Krug's "main" gig, but the packed house at the Bluebird, his position front and center (and facing the audience this time) on stage, and his much more confident demeanor made the case that the idea of Sunset Rubdown as a side project should be retired.
Krug's strength as a songwriter is not in writing verse-chorus-verse pop songs--which he never does--but rather, as with most compelling artists, in memorably articulating a world that only he can see fully. Serpentine as his song structures and esoteric as his lyrics can be, his gifts for inventing evocative images and turning the unlikeliest of lines into anthemic refrains rarely fail to bring his work back to earth. The way that certain images, themes and even whole songs pop up repeatedly, in slightly different forms, throughout his catalogue gives it the rich feel of a novel or an epic poem, and the structure of Friday's set emphasized this quality.
It seemed a bit odd for the band to open with "The Empty Threats Of Little Lord," a dark and especially melodramatic song from breakout album Shut Up I Am Dreaming, but as Krug segued into Dragonslayer's "Idiot Heart," the band's most rocking song yet, he not only demonstrated his work's broad range but also drew--whether consciously or not--a connection between the "snake" of "Little Lord" and the subject of "Idiot Heart," the target of the line "I hope that you die/in a decent pair of shoes/you've got a lot of long walking to do." ("Idiot Heart" also features a line borrowed from Dreaming's "The Men Are Called Horsemen There" and a section of melody from that album's "Q-Chord.") Later in the set, the "confetti float[ing] away like dead leaves" of "Silver Moons" resurfaced shortly afterward in "Dragon's Lair." And so on--these connections already exist in the band's recordings, but what made Friday's performance so remarkable is how much more clear they seemed, at least to me; this was especially impressive given the way lyrics tend to suffer in the sonics of rock shows.
Oh, and also: The band kicked ass. This may be very dorky music, but Krug's songs are stuffed just as full of great melodies as they are with medieval imagery, and his band executed them perfectly. From the stately drama of "Silver Moons" to the giddy bombast of "The Mending of the Gown" to the plaintive sway of "Us Ones In Between," which concluded the encore, the band--which also includes multi-instrumentalist/backup vocalist Camilla Wynne Ingr, guitarist Michael Doerksen, bassist Marc Nicol and drummer Jordan Robson-Cramer--proved itself a powerful, flexible unit, a group that has spent far too much time together, and has amassed way too good of a catalog, to be considered a side project. Wolf Parade may sell all the records, and Swan Lake may be an indie fan's wet dream, but Sunset Rubdown proved on Friday night--if it hadn't already, long ago--that it is the main repository for Spencer Krug's singular genius.
Personal Bias: Well, I think I've gushed enough about Spencer Krug (actually, no, I haven't), but I will say that I was very disappointed to be informed that he's too shy to submit to interviews.
Random Detail: Robson-Cramer, Doerksen and Nicol actually rotated on each other's instruments a few times.
By The Way: Sunset Rubdown played a new song, but Krug didn't say what it was called. It wasn't a standout, but given the way Krug tends to work and rework songs, it could be by the time it makes it on to an album.