(Global Symphonic, 2001)
Before Wolf Parade, Dan Boeckner formed a little band with some friends from British Columbia that they called Atlas Strategic. This was actually after he road-tested an earlier band, God Shaped Vacuum, with Carey Mercer, later of Frog Eyes fame, on drums. Atlas Strategic was an outlet for the kind of person you’d invite over to your house to smoke a bowl and listen to Cramps records with. It was a band that didn’t aim for anything supremely unattainable – it was, essentially, an indie rock outfit with fetishes for rockabilly, blues, gospel, and1960s B-movie horror scores, filtered through punk rock’s unruly prisms. Boeckner sang and played guitar. He was surrounded by the standard rock-band cast – drums, bass, organ.
It worked – the band, for lack of a better word, was fun, an enthusiastic mix of swagger and soused self-worth that translated, on record anyway, to bloozey careening and in-jokey mischief. The kids wanted to drag race, smoke cigarettes, and have fun. Or wait – they wanted to promote a nostalgic view of futuristic science, as viewed through EPCOT Center’s weird, family-friendly lens, albeit with the glitches everyone surely knew lurked behind its sterile utopianism. Right? Can the agendas coexist? In the end, does it matter? Is your parents’ liquor cabinet unlocked? It seems like Atlas Strategic – and I say this without getting too deep into what ridiculous meanings these early-twentysomethings could possibly have injected into their hijinks – answer with a “whatever,” “sure,” “nope,” and “if it is, break it open.” Minor demons, bad robots, chickens, vampire bats, galactic councils, and Jesus Christ himself all make appearances, certainly to the detriment of an underlying cohesion, but to the promotion of a songwriting style where wordplay was given free reign among the societal detritus and idiosyncratic everyday flotsam that invaded the boys’ worldview. Whether these items were real or not, the fun of it was the key. And it’s that level of quirky tale-spinning that elevates Boeckner’s early work here to a repeatable level not often seen at the outset of musical careers.
So here’s the real question – if we can all agree that Boeckner’s contributions to Wolf Parade and, currently, Handsome Furs are, if not innovative, at least eminently enjoyable, why is Atlas Strategic ignored in conversations about him/them? I’ve rarely heard or read mention of the band in features about Boeckner’s post-Atlas work, as if it’s ceased to exist. I wonder if Boeckner himself wants to place some distance between that and his current work. Maybe there was bad blood in the dissolution – I know they opened for Modest Mouse and were offered a Sub Pop contract before it fell apart (and it was subsequently Boeckner’s connection with Isaac Brock that Wolf Parade was able to rope him in to produce Apologies to the Queen Mary), so there certainly could have been a high level of regret for those left behind. But in the end, Atlas Strategic, specifically Rapture, Ye Minions!, represents a crucial building block for Dan Boeckner’s career. (Wolf Parade has even “covered” “Day in the Life” at early live shows, and they recorded “National Flag” from follow-up EP That’s Familiar! as “The National People’s Scare” on Wolf Parade (EP2).)
So let’s bridge this gap, shall we? We don’t want Spencer Krug, Boeckner’s Wolf Parade cohort, to cast too great a shadow with his formidable back catalog and relegate his bandmates to the background. (I mean, Sunset Rubdown, Swan Lake, and Moonface are all pretty damn good, I just think a lot of Dan’s thunder, through no fault of Spencer’s own, is stolen by Spencer.) And it’s not as if Dan’s style, as a guitarist or singer, changed (or in fact needed to change) between his time in Atlas Strategic and the inception of Wolf Parade: he continued to mine jangly blues chords and runs, not overdriving his instrument terribly (for the most part). He also seems to have had warbly yelp, weathered beyond his years, since birth – an incredibly useful rock weapon to have in one’s arsenal. (Dan turned twenty-three in 2001, the year of Rapture’s release.) Both of these attributes fit perfectly in each band: in Atlas Strategic where he was the principal singer and his guitar rode a steady stream of organ; and in Wolf Parade, where he became known, in some circles, as the band’s Springsteen to Krug’s Bowie, and his guitar, once again, rode a steady stream of organ and other keyboards. It was as if Atlas served as his AAA seasoning and Wolf Parade’s formation was his call-up to the major leagues.
Looking back through a Wolf Parade–tinted lens, it’s easy to see and enjoy Rapture, Ye Minions! as a logical point of reference in Boeckner’s career. Although the playing falls into an adequate-to-good category, and the songs don’t quite drive or have the serious weight of Wolf Parade tunes, it’s still OK – it’s hard to hit all the emotional buttons all the time. (Wolf Parade barely even does that beyond Apologies.) But that doesn’t mean songs like “Jeered by Minor Demons,” “Chicken Shack,” “Bad Robots,” and “Idiot Boys” don’t hit that rock-and-roll sweet spot that they need to – each of them does, and with accuracy. The yelp and the playing are a little sloppy in places—particularly the organ as it’s noticeably supposed to buoy the rhythm—which detracts slightly, despite, I guess, its ramshackle charm. Would’ve been nice to tighten some of that, though, particularly on “Jeered” and “Chicken Shack.”
“LITTLE BLACK HEART”
But life goes on, and the band tries on a few different hats as well, some that Dan discards as his career arc progresses. He plays the blues troubadour in the smoky hotel lounge perfectly, both on “Little Black Heart” and “Poisonous Wine.” He does 1950s bubblegum swagger on “Baby,” complete with a chorus of faux–girl group backing vocals, readymade for a sock hop. He passes the mic to Johnny Pollard, aka Atlas Strategic himself, in “Jesus Christ,” an insanely dead-on southern gospel tent revival. In a bit of schizophrenic recording, “Jesus Christ” also begins and ends as a 1960s B-movie horror score workout, led by Boeckner, and featuring ooky-spooky Hammond runs worthy of “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah.” Pollard’s revival is dropped right in the middle, with a turn-on-a-dime transition. It’s a little frustrating knowing that this long, ultimately mediocre, song could have been two great ones had the band split the ideas, but alas, it was not to be.
But even with the stutter steps, this is an incredibly promising record from the man who would turn into half of the songwriting duo that would pen Apologies, one of my favorite records of all time. So it’s with a little bit of pride that I’m able to dig a little deeper and share my thoughts on Rapture, Ye Minions!, an absolutely vital piece to the greater Wolf Parade puzzle. This is definitely for those of you who, like me, are enraptured with Dan Boeckner’s (and Spencer Krug’s) output, and who are quite willing to tease every little bit of insight out of these artists as they can. And while Rapture is nobody’s idea of a perfect record, it’s still a good one, and an enjoyable point of reference to discover.
RIYL: The Cramps, The Make-Up, Wolf Parade