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Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2006 03:38 am

With friends like these...

Swan Lake takes music to new heights of idiocy

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Swan LakeBeast Moans(Jagiaguwar)

In the booklet accompanying Swan Lake’s debut is the following epigraph: “Beast Moans is a testament to friendship, eternal and otherwise.” The sentiment is sweet but more than a little scary. Sure, friends can inspire one another to new heights of creativity, but they can also goad one another to new depths of idiocy. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk, so why do they let ’em make crummy records? In all fairness, friends don’t necessarily know better. Under the influence of affection and mutual admiration and all that other squishy subjective stuff, collaborating comrades can’t always tell whether the final product is greater than the sum of its parts or just a formless orgy of self-indulgence. Beast Moans is both, an often frustrating welter of half-baked ideas and tantalizing directions, of aimless noodling and shared epiphanies.

A Canadian supergroup of sorts, Swan Lake consists of Dan Bejar (Destroyer, New Pornographers), Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown), and Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes). You can hear traces of the members’ principal bands on Beast Moans — Bejar’s “The Freedom” sounds like an early Destroyer outtake, Krug’s “All Fires” is distinctly Wolf Parade-esque, and Mercer’s “The Partisan but He’s Got to Know” is a stoned-soul circus à la Frog Eyes — but, despite a certain lunatic charm, most of the songs are hydra-headed hybrids. Teeming with tinnitus-inducing organs, needly guitars, and pinging percussion, the album is often painfully trebly; when all three guys are yelping and mumbling and warbling in not-quite-unison, it’s like a sonic migraine. There’s just too much of everything too much of the time. But every once in a while, just often enough to make this CD a fascinating failure rather than a dull disaster, the miasma lifts to reveal an actual melody, all the more radiant for its scarcity.

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Speaking of sort-of supergroups, the Wee Hairy Beasties comprise the Mekons’ Jon Langford and Sally Timms, country-soul diva Kelly Hogan, and all three members of the anarcho-hillbilly jug band Devil in a Woodpile. Animal Crackers, the Beasties’ first album, is children’s music without the corrosive smarminess of Raffi, Barney, and their tot-pop ilk. It contains all the ingredients that kids crave — lots of dumb-funny puns and funny-dumb animal sounds — and wisely hides whatever pedagogical ambitions it might have under a thick frosting of silliness. Assuming the alter egos Cyril the Karaoke Squirrel, Marjorie the Singing Bee, and Monkey Double-Dippey, Langford, Hogan, and Timms tackle such tyke-friendly subjects as tiny newts, ragtime ducks, and dancing turtles. The rollicking “Road Safety Song” (“There’s a deer in the road; slow down!”) makes its point without preaching, whereas “Flies on My Taters” is a classic gross-out anthem unadulterated by any deeper message.

In addition to picking up fun facts about the lower life forms (e.g., flies, like a certain Beatle heroine, have kaleidoscope eyes; cuttlefish squirt ink and have tentacles), kids will get a crash course in the musical history of their own species. A kind of Americana primer, Crackers skips merrily from country-blues (“I’m an A.N.T.,” an affectionate G-rated parody of Muddy Waters’ “I’m a Man”) to Andrews Sisters-era jazz (the dizzy, delightful “Glow Worm”) to frenetic Western swing (the washboard/kazoo/harmonica workout “Buzz Buzz Buzz”). Timms’ silvery mezzo-soprano turns the potentially icky “Toenail Moon” into a luminous lullaby, Langford’s burnished brogue brings out the sly humor in the title track, and Hogan’s incomparable alto makes “Housefly Blues,” a rooty-tooty redaction of “St. James Infirmary” told from the perspective of the titular Musca domestica, unexpectedly poignant. Look at it this way: Your kids don’t suck, so why should their music?

Contact René Spencer Saller at rssaller@core.com.

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