ARCADE FIRE REVIEWS:
Album Score: 12
Oh, the anguish! As the story goes, these guys had a reason to feel depressed; many of them had close family members die recently. You're probably thinking “Oh no, not another one of these depressed hipster bands recording whiny music!,” but Funeral proves to be a little bit different from the norm. This album doesn't just wallow in despair; it's frequently beautiful! There's a light at the end of its tunnel! It's almost too-obvious they were using the process of recording this album to help them through the process of grieving their loved ones, and the result is undoubtedly one of the most alluringly bittersweet albums I've ever heard!
Not only do their emotions genuine, but these are actually well-written songs. That's right, folks, Arcade Fire actually know how to pen a tune! Not only are the melodies good, but the harmonies are oftentimes breathtaking! Their knack for rich and captivating minor-key chord sequences remind me of Brian Wilson circa Pet Sounds, who was the masters of harmonies. Helping turn these harmonies into something truly staggering is the mesmerizing, atmospheric instrumentation. They create quite an alluring mixture of their morose pianos, elaborately dark string arrangements, and dreamy guitars. Tasty! Let's talk about some of these songs, shall we?
Listen to the way the album's first track “Neighborhood #1” begins. If you're not immediately captured by that morose synthscape and those bittersweet pianos, then you had might as well turn off the album right away, because you'll probably like nothing here. Luckily, the song doesn't wallow in such a down-beat mode for too long; a drum beat pipes up and the thing grows louder and more dynamic! Ah yes, isn't it nice when songwriters constantly let their textures evolve, giving their songs an overarching push to the end? By golly, it is!!! That's an excellent song, but it does have one whopping huge thorn in its side that must be addressed: The singing. I know lead singer Win Butler wanted to release all the anguish he had bottled up inside, but that doesn't mean he had to SCREAM as loudly as he could, does it? His scream-singing comes off as overblown and amateurish, and it's so prevalent throughout this album that I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of listeners completely wrote it off at that point. They had good reason to!
But I still like listening to the album, because of the harmonies! If you want to hear what a beautiful chord progression sounds like, just get a load of the beginning “In the Backseat.” God, that minor-chord sequence is so great that I would even like hearing the plain chords on a synthesizer. That's the power of a good chord progression. But, of course, they dress it up beautifully with their intricate instrumentation standards, which includes an absolutely heart-melting string arrangement. Naturally, the middle of that song is louder and more upbeat, providing contrast to the way the song opened. Sometimes, these songs that contain such dramatic crescendos in it seem bloated, but the way they managed to capture my attention from the very beginning, I'm inclined to follow through the crescendos with my undivided attention. A song like this is rare, indeed!
Speaking of ultra-dramatic crescendos, that's another one of these guys' signature specialties. I suppose that gets a little tiring since so many of these songs have such dramatic crescendos—but geez, these songs are so well-written that they feel like they're actually deserved. It's terribly engaging listening to its roller coaster ride of emotions through a song like “Crown of Love,” through its dips and valleys and everything. In its final third, it suddenly turns into something of a disco-dance, which was an almost jarring surprise but a delightful one after the initial shock is over. It sounds like they're going to dance off all that overflowing heartache they're experiencing. Sometime you gotta dance!
Unfortunately, not all of these songs are so excellent. “Haiti” has an interesting sort of dreary tropical texture to it, but it's a freaking two-chord song! Hearing them do a two-chord song after staggering me in other parts of this album is disheartening to say the least. “Neighborhood #4 (The Kettles)” is much better as a composition, but it's so downbeat and sluggishly paced that it never catches fire. That said, at least those thick, string-ridden arrangements are nice to sit back and soak up.
A lot of critics and fans have been calling this album one of the ultimate classics of the '00s. As far as I'm concerned, they're right about that. It fits in pretty well with the trend of indie musicians creating depressing music to elaborate orchestration, and it also contains some of the most compelling melodies and harmonies of anything I've heard this decade. Plus, this isn't really such a depressing album. It's more about overcoming that depression. That, right there, is actually something this world could use.
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Neon Bible (2007)
Album Score: 11
Call it what you want: A sophomore slump, trying too hard, lucky the first time around, or they just weren't sad any longer; the fact is that Neon Bible isn't even close to what Funeral was. This is a substantial disappointment for me, actually. The one thing I was impressed with the most in their debut were harmonies, but these songs are two- or three-chord for the most part. Grrr! I even checked a guitar tab Web site to confirm my suspicions. Why did they have to change the one thing I liked about them the most? And now, their songwriting standards are less impressive than T. Rex's.
That didn't mean they weren't trying hard. In fact, the sheer effort they put into this thing was the one thing that kept this at a rather high rating. They actually put all the money they earned from Funeral and the tours to good use, and they bought a defunct church in Quebec and converted it into their own recording studio. The best thing about owning your own music studio, as Kate Bush would attest, is that you get all the time you would ever want to record and mix your songs. Believe me, they put so much work into this that it's overwhelming. The full sounds of the strings, pipe organs, horns, woodwinds, vibraphones, sound effects, and indescribable synthesizers are so lush and elaborate that it would have flabbergasted even Jeff Lynne. If Arcade Fire's only goal in this was out-ELO ELO, then they've succeeded massively! And yet, very little of this seemed too overblown. That's quite an accomplishment. Jeff Lynne, of course, knew better than to write boring songs lacking even basic choruses, but I'll be buggered if this album doesn't contain some of the most mightiest orchestration standards I've ever heard anywhere.
“Black Mirror” might be a two-chord song, but based on the instrumentation alone, I couldn't see fit to give it anything less than an A-. I mean, it seriously sounds like a Tchaikovsky ballad was trapped up somewhere beneath all that lushness and was trying to escape. Of course, it's only that repetitive drum beat that keeps it rock 'n' roll. And thank goodness for the steady drumbeat, too, because these songs would be nowhere without it. The follow-up song “Keep the Car Running,” again, has utterly FANTASTIC instrumentation, but it's unfortunately so melodically and harmonically simple. Geez, I wonder if it's just a coincidence that Win Butler's singing on that song in particular reminded me so much of Bruce Springsteen in Born in the USA? Seriously, listen to “Dancing in the Dark” and then listen to “Keep the Car Running.” Oh, CRAP!
Forget what I said about harmonies for one paragraph while I tell you about the only real exception to that rule. The multi-part suite “Black Wave / Bad Vibrations” is close to an evil-dark masterpiece. I don't know if it was just suggestion from the song title, but it does sound like an evil “Good Vibrations.” Particularly, the vague Beach-Boy-isms in the first part of the song amidst a quirky, dissonant, and almost synth-pop groove. Chassagne brassy vocals sound like a squawking bird sometimes, but they're weird and turn that experience into something a little more haunting and surreal. The second part isn't nearly as weird, but they way they orchestrated it, it sounds like the apocalypse. It's loud, it's thunderous, it's dramatic. (It's thunderous, in part, because they literally inject thunder sound effects in it!) As they would say in French, c'est tres bien!
They let a super dark pipe-organ, that presumably came from the church they bought, take the center stage for “Intervention” and “My Body in a Cage.” I do admit I love the sound of a pipe organ, and that can be an excellent instrument in the context of a pop composition! (Of course, I know a number of people who are absolutely horrified to hear a pipe organ in pop-rock... In fact, they probably wouldn't even call what Arcade Fire do pop-rock. ......Well, it ain't classical music!!!) But I like me some pipe-organ! Once again, those songs might not be such impressive compositions, but they sure do sound nice and dark.
They redid a song, “No Cars Go,” from their self-titled LP, naturally with as much lush instrumentation that they could pack into it. It's a slightly more dramatic and bracing song than most of these others. Despite that being pre-Funeral, it doesn't exactly have the harmonic brilliance of songs like “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” or “In the Backseat.” Hmm... I'm suspecting that Arcade Fire will never again write songs quite like that. That said, they're still certainly still a band worth following just because I don't see many bands putting so much effort in their arrangements. But it's definitely not a good sign that they forgot how to write compelling songs already.
Read the track reviews:
The Suburbs (2010)
Album Score: 12
It might not be Funeral, but at least it's more inherently interesting to me than Neon Bible. The reason for that, simply, is that the songwriting has improved. (Anyone who disagrees with that should imagine songs from these albums being played only with an acoustic guitar... There aren't nearly as many two-chord songs on here!) The theme of this album is centered around nostalgia, specifically about Win and William Butler's upbringing in the Houston suburbs. I can imagine what inspired them since I've grown up in a place similar to the Houston suburbs—it was a boring and sterile place, but I inevitably found ways to pass the time. ...And how could I ever regret those times, since it was the only childhood I've ever known?
But anyway, these songs are brilliant; I like all of them. I like some more than I like others, but there's not a single stinker in this 16-track album. It opens with what's for my money the strongest song of the lot: the title track. At its core, it's a simple piano pop song with a catchy riff and an excellent melody to match. As Arcade Fire always do, they drench it with such thick atmosphere that it feels like I should be able to cut through it with a butter knife. You can expect to hear a ton of songs filled to the brim with drowned-out strings, fuzzy synthesizers, distorted and bendy guitars, and an assortment of other instruments that I have trouble identifying.
Another one of my favorite songs of the disc is “Empty Room,” which is about as intensely rockin' as these guys ever get. ...Naturally they don't achieve that quite like most bands would other than using fast-paced drums and thumpy bass; the principle instrument is some subdued fuzz guitar and some intense, tension-building staccato notes from the violinist. They do take the opportunity to rock out in a more conventional way in “Month of May,” which is a simple rock 'n' roller with rapid, glam drums and an uninvolved melody... However, it entertains me immensely and its odd closeted, claustrophobic mix gives it a certain post-modern personality. They do the same thing with “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” which at the surface seems like an overly conventional synth-pop song, but it doesn't take me many more listens to discover that there is something else lurking beneath its surface. And whatever that is, I have yet to figure out! (Man! Writing about albums like this is tough! These songs appeal to me, but I can't always tell you why.)
“Rococo” might be the strangest song of the lot with an extremely subdued and detached riff and incessant chantings of Rococo, which is a name I'm guessing they chose for how it sounds more than what it means. It starts out spooky, but by the end those staccato violins among other instruments build up a terrifying mansion from a '30s horror film. Some of the background instrumentals sound twisty at times, like they're aping something from the Middle East. “Sprawl I (Flatland)” also reminds me of an old horror film, and I love it for that; it has a beautiful minor chord sequence, gorgeous melody, and some very arresting strings that I hear welling up in the background. ...It's quite a fascinating number.
Another song I'd like to cherry pick is “Half Light I,” which is utterly glorious in how it builds up. That song, more than almost anything else, reminds me of listening to Funeral; I'd wager an entire flame-war with a hipster by saying that I like that song about as much as I like anything from that album.“City With No Children” and “Modern Man” are first-class subdued pop-rockers if you're into that sort of thing (I know I am)! But as I said before, Arcade Fire might do simplicity, but they don't do it without also giving us a series of rather beautiful background embellishments that gives it personality and atmosphere.
The downside to this album is that it's quite long (more than 60 minutes), and it would have surely benefited from a trim. (Didn't rock 'n' roll bands used to trim less inspired songs off albums and then release them years later in a rarities collection? Don't Arcade Fire think people would be interested in rarity discs from them in whatever the equivalent of the mid-'80s will be for them?) The result is that this album gets tiring to listen to, especially in its second half where there lurks a number of songs that I didn't bother cherry-picking for the main review body. Nonetheless, I've been listening to this album very consistently over the last few weeks and I've enjoyed it without feeling the dire need to skip anything. The songs are all at least well-written enough for them to have earned at least A-minuses in my book. I certainly didn't give the same treatment to Neon Bible. I didn't even do that for Funeral, even though that album certainly had more sweeping and unforgettable moments in it.
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