My first introduction to Le Loup’s debut album The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly came in isolation. This was an album to be listened to in private: the album’s arches and corridors providing a space in which a long-form writing project I was striving to complete could be realized. At the time of the album’s recording, Le Loup was the solo project of a man named Sam Simkoff, and I suspect that some of the album’s appeal to me came from the one-man-band nature of it: there’s something dynamic and compelling about working on a project of one’s own and listening to someone else engaged in a similar pursuit.
It doesn’t hurt that Throne has a feeling to it at once frenzied and contemplative: looped beats, overdubbed choirs made up of Simkoff’s voice, sampled sound clips, and a smartly played banjo all make appearances. But it’s hard to imagine this album coming to be in any situation other than as a solo project: it can be messy but, to these ears, never less than fascinating. Consider the ominous way Simkoff delivers a line like “This world was made for ending” (on “Planes Like Vultures”), or the conclusion to “Canto XXXVI”, elevated by the presence of lines like “We will lift her up/ We will lift her body up.” A strain of surreal mysticism runs through Throne, and even when the album doesn’t work — when songs fall away into lengthy sound-effect gaps or ambient noises overtake melodies — it never stops being interesting. Simkoff’s voice goes from whispered to a broken sort of cry, and it’s abetted by the banjo that runs alongside it, providing a visceral and sometimes percussive accompaniment.
The live version of Le Loup that began touring in late 2007 was something altogether different. Seven strong, most contributing vocals, Le Loup’s evolution into a proper band began with a lineup that forcefully translated the songs written and recorded by Simkoff into something much more expansive. And it worked: I can remember being fixed on the band to the exclusion of anything else as they played “I Had a Dream I Died.,” the song that brings Throne to a close. Simkoff’s voice, unadorned or looped over itself, has one kind of power, but a half-dozen voices, male and female, declaiming those same lyrics, brings to them a proper force. a half-dozen voices singing “This is the end/ Reckless young energy,” the music falling away beneath them.
Earlier in that same song, Simkoff sang, “Tell all your friends you love them without complaint.” Throne was a solo album, yes, but one that ultimately reconnected with a larger group. Which makes it seem fitting, even logical, that Le Loup’s second album has the title Family. The group’s lineup is down to five from the seven-piece version that held my attention two autumns ago: May Tabol and Nicole Keenan have left the band, the former having assembled a group of her own, called Pree. (The group’s present lineup consists of Simkoff, Jim Thomson, Robby Sahm, Christian Ervin, and Michael Ferguson.) While one might expect Family to share the visceral immediacy of Throne, the first impression one gets is of music that draws closely to a devotional impulse. These are harmonies that sound suited for the walls of churches and shrines as opposed to rock clubs: “Saddle Mountain,” which opens the album, seems encoded with a traditional sense of balladry, and the album’s title track is elevated by a series of vocal combinations that lend it a hallucinatory, pastoral feeling.
Family, though, is filled with subtle moments that would not have been possible in the previous version of the group: the swooning vocal section that ends the title track, for example, or “A Celebration,” which closes the album. The latter moves forward on a frenetic beat, voices singing at some points, chanting at others. But two-thirds of the way through, the bulk of the music drops away for a dialogue between piano and guitar, wordless vocals slowly rising to an ecstatic resolution. Its final ninety seconds encapsulate all that’s come before, and then comes the winding down, vocals the last to fade.
It’s the kind of ending that one might associate with the live version of a song: an extended coda, sections allowing the instruments room to breathe, a big finish. And while other moments from the album — the transition from “Family” into “Forgive Me,” for instance — are indicative of Family as a well-made record, “A Celebration” is unquestionably the work of a band that understands their own live dynamics. Alternately: “A Celebration” stands as the point of demarcation between the initial version of Le Loup and the full-band version that succeeded it.
2009’s Le Loup is a more consistent entity than the solo version that preceded it. Yet it isn’t without flaws of its own. There’s a distinctive sound to Throne; Family, though more consistent, is also more elusive and, in places, indistinct. It’s a little easier to categorize than its predecessor; it’s a little more conducive to shorthand descriptions. But it’s also more listenable and, ultimately as satisfying as Throne. So in the end, that may be the lesson taught by this version of Le Loup: sometimes, you need to hand something off to others in order to enrich it; at other times, perhaps, you don’t. And after the last notes of Family fade away, a sense of anticipation for what might come next remains.