It's difficult to think of another indie-pop record in the past 20 years as influential and surrounded by romantic lore as Neutral Milk Hotel's 1998 masterpiece, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Frontman Jeff Mangum, then part of Athens, Georgia's legendary Elephant Six collective, spun timeless tales of love, longing and loss, shot through the imagined prism of Anne Frank's gaze. The quivering timbre of his distinct vocals magically split the difference between debilitating sorrow and soaring optimism, creating an achingly humane tone with as much rawness as sparkle. Combining that sound, and the record's eclectic, carnival-band/funeral-dirge instrumentation, from the viewpoint of a 16-year-old Jewish Holocaust victim, created an endlessly absorbing record that enjoys a rabid cult of fans to this day—even though Mangum all but disappeared (save for extremely rare and unannounced public appearances or brief collaborations with other Athens-based artists) shortly after touring behind the album.
More than 10 years later, Mangum's mortal ghost can be heard haunting artists like Bright Eyes, Arcade Fire, and—perhaps most subtly and unexpectedly—in the eerie, atmospheric shades that color the work of Montreal's Wolf Parade, the Sub Pop band that released their third full-length album, Expo 86, in June of this year.
Formed four years after the dissolution of NMH, Wolf Parade is the shared vision of keyboardist/vocalist Spencer Krug (also of Frog Eyes) and guitarist/vocalist Dan Boeckner (also of the Handsome Furs), propelled by drummer Arlen Thompson and augmented with the sound manipulations and synth surges of Hadji Bakara. After a handful of self-released EPs, their 2005 full-length debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, put them on the Pitchfork crowd's radar. Like NMH's Aeroplane, Apologies was an indisputable, if slow-burning, psych-pop masterpiece. And also much like Aeroplane, its strength as a creative work came from its confounding marriage of sorrowful, somber minor tones and uplifting major chords. Critics fawned, a rabid cult following began to flourish and a nomination for Canada's prestigious Polaris Music Prize followed in 2006, as did a high-profile tour with their friends in a rising Montreal band called Arcade Fire. On sophomore effort At Mount Zoomer (2008), the pair continued their approach, trading vocal roles on surreal pop-rock compositions, laced heavily with percolating synth and the slightly more prominent presence of Krug's lysergic keys.
As for any self-perceived associations with Mangum's lauded legacy, Boeckner understands the correlations, but has mixed feelings about the lasting effects of Aeroplane.
"I loved that album when it came out," he recalls while speaking via cell phone in a strip-mall parking lot in Newport, Kentucky. "It inspired a lot of bands in great ways and ushered in this whole indie-rock era, but in retrospect it also had a real negative influence. It [led to] a lot of things I just can't stand about indie rock, like unnecessary 'wacky' instruments. Like French horns, for no reason. They did it well, but generally, French horns for no reason is a bad idea."
Expo 86 is a French horn- and frill-free collection of songs, recorded almost entirely live in drummer Thompson's studio, marked by a decidedly sunnier disposition and a more straightforward approach than the band's earlier catalog. For fans of the band's more embellished works, Expo 86 may initially hit the palate with less nuance than they've come to expect. That said, the songwriting is solid, especially on songs like the guitar-heavy lead single "What Did My Lover Say?" and dance-floor driver "Ghost Pressure." Vocally, Boeckner sounds more focused than ever, having fully matured into his own voice after years of emulating some unusual idols.
The sad lonesomeness that earned Neutral Milk Hotel a permanent place in the indie-rock canon is likely destined to remain an artifact of the past, but Wolf Parade doesn't plan to follow them to an early exit, if for no other reason than that they're happy keeping things simple and on their own terms.
"We really enjoy playing with each other, and we've managed to keep things under our control and without a lot of bullshit," Boeckner says before laughing. "Besides, it's not like I have a backup plan."