Sunday, July 20, 2008

THE CDS: The Arcade Fire

When The Arcade Fire's debut album made numerous Best of 2004 lists, I got a bit interested. But why? Probably I liked the band's name and the album's title, Funeral. Maybe it just seemed to suit the mood of the moment. My daughter got the CD and, not all that impressed with it, passed it along to me. I have to say that it still hasn't fully sunk in; or, put another way, there are some stand-out songs I love, the rest just seem to blend together without a lot of distinction. On the plus side, that means that the album has an overall sound that it sustains well -- it's lush, layered, dark at times, but with uplift that has emotional urgency. I'd agree that "Rebellion (Lies)" is one of the best songs of 2004 -- and that's partly because of its insistent drum rhythm that is much less present on the rest of the album. The song grabs you and you stay hooked. And the somewhat strangled voice of the singer Win Butler is very effective on that track, so much so that I've gotten chills when hearing the song by chance somewhere -- the "it's that song" recognition which tells you a track has gotten through. I"m also very partial to the moody, swirling sound of "Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)" and I like the way the voice, in its plaintive articulations, is right out front. Of the other songs, the opening, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" is convincing enough while I'm hearing it, but it doesn't live on in my mind to the same degree as those other two. In fact, when listening to the rest of the songs on the album, I seem to keep waiting for the two I like.

But whatever it is I get from those two songs was enough to make me pick up the band's second album Neon Bible (2007). I've had it a few months now and it's much the same story: a few tracks always rivet my attention while others just sail on past. When I make the effort to listen carefully I find much I like on this record. The band has a definite sound and presence that I associate with the old prog-rock era, tempered by an ear for '80s hooks. In other words, it's a mix that I should respond to! The unusual instrumentation (including string and orchestral arrangements, a choir, a pipe organ, a harp), the denseness of the sound, the literate lyrics (it's always fun to hear Québécois inserted in a song: "Run from the memory / Je nage, mais les sons me suivent"), and the sense of impending doom. What's not to like? I have the sense that if I were 13-17 years old, this album might well blow my mind. Which is to say (not that I'm old and jaded, mind you) that the appeal of earnest, urgent rock music is always aimed at a younger demographic, primarily.

The songs on Neon Bible that I really like to hear are (again the opener) "Black Mirror," "Windowsill," and "My Body is a Cage." But in listening just now before writing this, I found that "Keep the Car Running" and "Intervention" (with its "working for the church while your family dies" hook) gave me some of the same sense of emotional crux that I'm starting to recognize as an Arcade Fire trait: it's not exactly uplift as one expects from a typical hook, but rather a kind of spike in anxiety. Odd. The main body of the album: "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations," "Ocean of Noise," and "The Well and the Lighthouse" all had interesting changes and "(Antichrist Television Blues)" is a tour de force treatment of some kind of psychic breakdown involving little girls as televangelists. In general, I think it's a better, more mature album than the debut.

The Arcade Fire interests me, but I don't know that I could ever really be "a fan" of its particular overwrought sound and its somewhat heavy-handed self-importance. All the same, I think they've established themselves as songwriters and musicians consistently thoughtful, heartfelt and imaginative to merit attention from me (minimal as that might be) but, more importantly, from the younger generation. I think of them as boding well for the musical generation born in late '70s, early '80s -- though perhaps their appeal to critics and to professorial types like me doesn't necessarily translate into being the cutting edge of rock at present (whatever that might be).

My body is a cage
We take what we're given
Just because you've forgotten
that don't mean you're forgiven
--The Arcade Fire, "My Body is a Cage" (2007)

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