Wolf Lords ascend the electro-pop throne

Grant Cutler and Aby Wolf's gorgeous new collaboration
Bo Hakala

When Aby Wolf and Grant Cutler first started collaborating musically a couple of years ago, they didn't have a plan. Songwriting happened in the cozy confines of Cutler's living room in south Minneapolis — without any pressure or any goals. He'd throw out a chord, and Wolf would sing a few notes, and the two would improvise, and then they'd go back to one of their umpteen other projects. When the duo started playing together, they lazily called themselves "Wolf Lords," playing off Wolf's last name and one of Cutler's band projects, Grant Cutler and the Gorgeous Lords. When asked what type of music it was, Cutler responded that he didn't really have a name for it.

On paper, this sort of lackadaisical creative process doesn't sound particularly promising, but Wolf and Cutler held tight to the idea long enough for it to take shape.

"With the Wolf Lords material, we made it just to make it. We didn't have a deadline. We really wanted to take our time with it and create something that we each thought was really exciting," says Wolf, who sits at a table inside Muddy Waters. "I think as a DIY artist, you try to set as many little bombs as possible, each with feeling, each with meaning and quality, and see what trips that and what starts to happen."

Wolf seems like she is good at sitting still only because she wills herself to be. She has a focused but barely contained energy, and when she speaks, her arms and hands move to form matching gestures, as though every word is an extension of her body. As carefree as she makes Wolf Lords sound, everything about Wolf leaves the impression that whatever she does, she does with intention.

The self-titled Wolf Lords release is essentially the third album in Wolf's career, following her 2009 folk-pop debut, Sweet Prudence, and her 2012 avant-pop follow-up album as A. Wolf and Her Claws with her new band of the same name. In this latest development, we see Wolf in a role she knows quite well — fierce frontwoman with razor-blade vocals — and Cutler settling comfortably into the background as producer. The notable difference this time around, for both artists, is that it seems the two have finally found their sweet spot.

Wolf Lords opens powerfully with the synth-heavy "Permission," and right away, there is no mistaking what sort of album it is: sexy, synthed-out electro-pop. The end product meshes early-'90s Sade and Beach House, with an added measure of R&B beats. At a time when electronic music is either really, really bad or really, really good, it's a relief to have Wolf Lords contributing to the latter.

Cutler's production hand is expert. Wolf's powerful vocals are subdued, but not diminished, on tracks like the elegant "Flower in Winter," which progresses like a dream.

"Relaxing on the vocal recording process was a really great idea of Grant's .... Working with him has informed and shifted the way I approach singing — like everything does, it just kind of opens up my mind a little bit," says Wolf. "Grant's beats are so chill and just naturally really beautiful and simple .... The space that he allows in his production work also inspires me to reach for something different."

Cutler might get all the credit for the beat work, but Wolf is at the helm when it comes to lyrics. The tracks on Wolf Lords follow a strange route through Wolf's brain, a lush emotional landscape where the lyrics are both map directions and mantra. "If I wait for permission, I'll expire before I start/Life won't wait for me to decide if that's what I want," she sings on "Permission." "Safe and perfect bores me to death/Come on make it manifest/Risk it all and place your bets."

There's no chance to be bored on Wolf Lords. It's a tightly wound, 46-minute progression that unfolds like a slow-motion sucker punch. In some ways, the stripped-down arrangements and simple presentation showcase more character in Wolf's vocals than listeners have heard before: She's responsive, with the strength in her voice building from the openness in her lyrics.

"A lot of the songs on the Wolf Lords album are a lot more restfully emotional," explains Wolf. "I always tap into my emotions for writing content — I don't know how to write a 'story song,' but I really like to make use out of the insights that my emotional experiences give me."

As Wolf Lords floats atmospherically past, Wolf's dynamic vocals recreate those emotional experiences with a wisdom that's as catchy as it is true. It's the kind of thing that sounds good in almost any context, from earbuds to car stereos to expensive speakers. Wolf Lords might be the accidental end product of a partnership that's been long in the making, but when all is said and done, it's been well worth the wait.

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