Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Reviews: Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs"

First Published in Pressplus1 Online Magazine:

Upon the 2004 release of Funeral, Arcade Fire's back story became one of acute interest and relevance to several. Just where in the hell had this supernaturally gifted band come from?, folks wondered. While their members had been working in music for years before their 2003 formation, their ascension was rather quick and it's not as if they burst out of a metropolis well known for breaking big new acts like New York or Los Angeles. Instead, they showed up out of Montreal, a city previously best known for a gamut of artists of varying tastes such as Leonard Cohen, April Wine, Loverboy, Corey Hart, Sam Roberts and Celine Dion. Arcade Fire has given Cohen some company in the category of best thing musically to come out of Montreal. They arguably provide the best Can-Am mix of talent since the Band (a 4/5 Canadian group, meanwhile Arcade Fire's only American members are lead singer Win Butler and his lead guitarist brother William). When Win Butler hooked up with native Montrealer Regine Chassagne (raised in St. Lambert, the same town my mother grew up in I'd like to brag) Montreal wound up as the hotbed for the group to rise out of and it was a fertile time for the city's music scene then too.

Chassagne has been studying jazz vocal but those plans were scrapped and what a career move that's turned out to be. Her presence in the group has given a French appeal and Chassagne frequently refers back to the destitution of Haiti, where her family emanated from and had to abandon during the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier. Eventually the two became husband and wife but only after several members had passed through Butler's group over the years and they had finally formed Arcade Fire out of those ashes with Win's brother William, Richard Reed Parry, Tim Kingsbury, Dane Mills and Brendan Reed on their first EP lineup. Previously, Josh Deu and Tim Kyle had participated in the group. The lineup has remained pretty similar since formation and the number of members has grown to seven with drummers Reed and Mills gone, Howard Bilerman through and gone as well, and Jeremy Gara in the drum position ever since (that makes for 5 drummers in the band's history, but hey Pearl Jam has gone through over a dozen!). Violinist Sarah Neufeld is a wholesale addition added after the original 2003 formation. Thankfully, it hasn't become a group owned and run by the Butlers and Chassagne as they credit compositions to the band name rather than individuals. And it seems fitting they're such a big outfit these days, because when you have a violinist as an official participant of the band, you're pretty darn unique and can't fit your vision into a mere quarter or quintet (don't tell me ELO did the strings-as-members first and best, please).

After their beginnings in Montreal, they earned word of mouth respect and praise for their first EP and it culminated into a fortuitous moment where their first full-length release, Funeral, was greatly anticipated in underground circles, leading to a worldwide critical smash through 2004-05. For a change, the UK press took to a North American act like it was their very own. 2007's Neon Bible received similar acclaim, though more muted. However, many say time will iron out the wheat from the chaff and prove Neon Bible to be their true opus. The less hearty response to it was possibly due to slight backlash on the hype vapour trails left by Funeral. In this reviewer's opinion, Neon Bible was the truer masterpiece of the two. Neon Bible, other than its wickedly cool title, was a landmark album, perhaps the best of the previous decade and one of the few in recent memory that really was a rich experience to discover, as if nothing like it had come before. We get plenty of albums lauded and written about feverishly these days but many of them aren't breaking new ground or even traipsing over old ground in a way not seen or heard before. However, Neon Bible was, even if the influences were highly detectable at times. It was at times harrowing, disturbing and definitely took on a more cryptic tone than Funeral, though it had its lighter moments.

A band with as much to say each time out as Arcade Fire deserves to go every three years between studio albums and this is the case yet again as The Suburbs has now arrived in August of 2010. And while one might roll their eyes and find the critical adoration for this new album to be too gushing, almost a given and a self-fulfilling prophecy (and that person would be foolish and cynical anyway), the album really and truly is a new spin- a wide reaching attempt from Arcade Fire to draw in more casual listeners. Without sacrificing their essence, it appeals to a bigger audience with more emphasis on hooks and catchy keyboard melodies as well as increased presence of electric guitar. Now, the Arcade Fire is a bit like what you'd get with Tom Waits' instrument arsenal, if you gave it to more competent musicians trying to sound more professional and recorded it with state-of-the-art equipment. Often their songs are adorned with more traditional instruments of Americana like bottom end horns (tuba, french horn, etc.), accordion, odd percussion, old keyboards (ie. pipe organ), strings, mandolins and hurdy-gurdy but yet you can't call what they do rootsy or traditional. Their choice of goodies to play is as if they raided the basement of an old music hall and opted to go with the strangest stuff they could find for a rock band to use. The more obscure, the better.

And like the touring configurations Brian Wilson has been backed up by, namely the Wondermints, the band has enough hired hands to accomplish this all on stage without hiring different trained classical musicians for each tour. And they're good enough to make it sound as polished as a studio recording too. With Chassagne's Haitian background, they're also in tune with folk musics of that land and of her home province of Quebec. They can be an intimidating sight to behold on stage: a massive band beating out near-symphonic rock on many unorthodox instruments and getting caught up in the whirling dervish that is their music, as if in some secular congregation. If that's the case, Win Butler is their pentecostal preacher, summoning up the fire and brimstone as well as the sanctity and the salvation. Even though his voice conveys heaven-and-hell emotional pull like similar woebegotten or dramatic predecessors (Ian Curtis, Bono, Ian McCulloch of Echo & the Bunnymen- a more minor, less brilliant Arcade Fire of the 80s, David Bowie, Tom Verlaine), he never gets too pompous and on stage seems to be one of the more stoic, which still means he moves around and gets into it quite a bit. If there's one thing missing from the Arcade Fire in concert, it's a few instrumentalists who stay rather quiet, motionless or peaceful a la John Entwistle. Instead, they all get swept up in it and while one can argue the merits of their merry chants and choruses en masse, the music that results is arguably timeless.

While heavily weighted expectations are never something I like to see or wish to saddle on a band, I can definitely say that Arcade Fire are the best thing to happen to contemporary music in the past 10 years. They represent a ray of hope, riding on a crest of very interesting, hip indie music in the last 5-7 years. But where other indie giants have failed to go into the collective consciousness, the Arcade Fire has thrived by understanding it's best not to get too dogmatically serious or ambitious for the average listener. That is perhaps why The Suburbs is a scaling back of grand ideas just a tiny bit. For how can one hope to follow up Neon Bible with a record that opts for the same tenor? Perhaps it's because of their mutli-layered approach to recording, but I doubt we'll see them become U2 or Bruce Springsteen down the road, touring to packed stadiums around the world. That said they're not adverse to marketing their live work which is shown in how an August 5 show at Madison Square Garden was not only broadcast live on the net but also filmed for an upcoming concert movie. But in true, surreal Arcade Fire fashion, it's being directed by Terry Gilliam, the Monty Python animator/writer/director, famous for grim but cartoonishly imaginative movies such asTime Bandits, Brazil, The Fisher King and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

With two albums under their belt that have their underground and indie reputations cemented, it could be a risk to go for something more catchy but it all falls in to place quite well on The Suburbs. Who says pop has to be shallow? Often, when done right, pop music can be beautiful and glistening as well. This album reminds me of some of the more friendly releases by new wave/post-punk heroes that Arcade Fire owe a debt to, such as XTC, Echo and the Bunnymen or the Talking Heads. There's more electronic glow to the album as opposed to the frenetic, horn-driven wall of noise from previous releases. Already the album has received a ton of praise and has debuted at #1 in several countries, namely the UK where the Arcade Fire are a more victorious option to the dulcet tones of Coldplay, Keane or James Blunt (all mellow, but still one of these things is not like the others). With this kind of acceptance, the worry many critical allies, supporters and loyal fans will have is that the establishment will all of a sudden "wake up"- to use a pun- to Arcade Fire's marketing potential. They aren't the kind of band to let their persona be used for global corporate reach like the Black Eyed Peas (the model of what not to do if you're an underground favourite seeking massive popularity but trying to retain some measure of dignity). But I don't think a band like this can be spoiled too badly or will even let it come to that so there's no reason to panic.

As for what's inside the grooves on The Suburbs, what we have is some of the most carefree, triumphant work yet for this band, now flaunting an easier going side in heavier doses than ever before. The lead cut for the disc is also the title one and it's a bouncy, barocque sort of take on post-rock, built up beautifully as it winds along until taken over by a furious cascading of string ostinatos near the end. Win Butler uses his falsetto to great effect in one of his finer vocal tracks to date. The energy level goes from the jog of "The Suburbs" to an 100 metre dash as it segues right into "Ready to Start." On this cut- one of the jangly, fast tempoed centrepieces the way "Rebellion (Lies)," "No Cars Go" and "Keep the Car Running" were for previous albums- the tension is ratcheted up to the level we've come to expect from Arcade Fire. They do a wonderful job at fleshing out their already pulsing rhythms with a gloss of synthesizers echoing around the mix. A lot of the mass parts added to the record came after sessions where the group hammered out the songs' basic tracks like they were playing them live (standard practice for bands but necessary for a group trying to replicate a near orchestra of players on most tracks).

Despite having gone for such moments of drama and high anxiety on Funeral and Neon Bible, "Ready to Start" somehow does not feel old hat, as they've done enough alteration to the expected to come up with a what has the potential to be their first top 10 hit in Canada or the UK (the US hasn't been as receptive to their singles for whatever reason, though just give them an auto-tuned rhyming of words over a copped musical track and #1 is in sights!). On "Modern Man," tricky time signature changes are a wrench tossed into the machinery but it almost sounds like a continuation on "Ready to Start," just tightened up and quieted down a tad. It's again a suitably shiny affair, definitely indicating things are going to be slightly different on this LP. While The Suburbs is not an explicit concept album like we've come to know in rock, the tracks mostly flowing together and holding the theme of the 'burbs gives you the impression that it is. And Win Butler has said in press interviews that this was the life experience he was harping on throughout, so I guess we can call it somewhat of a concept album. At least, there's definitely more of a clear concept than their previous two albums. There's no connecting story arc or series of events so it's not the purest of concept albums but that's no problem.

A full musical, stage and film ambitious concept from the Arcade Fire would indeed be heady but we'll have to wait to see if it ever occurs. While adapting the work on Funeral and Neon Bible to some sort of other medium would be trickier, The Surburbs however does feel ripe for a movie or theatrical production adaptation. Win Butler's ruminations on growing up in such a scenario lend themselves better to that and you get imagery of innocence and paranoia and fear sometimes all in one song with this album. "Modern Man" is followed nicely by "Rococo," a more sedate, strange work, a slower but wilder piece with the guitar and string parts at the helm of several very psychedelic breakdowns that are reminiscent of how the best rock bands at using string backing have done it: a list that includes the Verve, the Beatles and Procul Harum. Heck, for that 60s feel there's both Hendrix-styled wailing feedback coupled with the shifty, glissando strings (not unlike the Beatles' "Within You, Without You") and even a harpsichord is played. Consider "Rococo" their tribute to psychedelia, and a fitting one at that. We're greeted right after "Rococo" by the solitary sounds of aggressively bowed strings, as if it's a Beethoven number about to occur. Instead, it's a grungy rock fist pumper entitled "Empty Room."

Chassagne joins in on vocals for this one and while she's the inferior of the two vocalists, she provides a different, more quirky tenor with her Yoko Ono-if-she-took-singing-lessons glee. One can't listen to Win Butler's breathless crooning all the time, right? "Empty Room" is a haunting rocker, the vocals awash in a chilly, almost industrial echo. Moving on, "City with No Children" reveals a newer side of Arcade Fire that proves at the core of their world-conquering denseness is a smart, able rock band. With a chunky guitar rhythm that sounds like William Butler was listening to some Keith Richards/Rolling Stones, they get a little bit heavier than usual. The words of this song seem to reflect on the coldness of an adult world, commenting that it feels like all the children have gone and left the city to leave the protagonist to wallow in their own "private prison." Fading in out of the ashes of that classic rocker is "Half Light I." Amidst triplets on guitar and tack piano, Chassagne breathily chimes in for what's another captivating tune. Without much of a backbeat, it's still the most majesty-swept of all the tracks to this point, swirling with an arresting string accompaniment that at one point plays a descending melody line somewhat like one from Isaac Hayes' "Shaft" but I doubt that was intended or noticed by many, except me of course (if I ever meet arranger Owen Pallett, I will show him what I mean). At 16 tracks, you can bet that there aren't a slew of lengthy performances here and not one track runs past 6 minutes, though a majority go past 4.

"Half Light II (No Celebration)" takes more of a defiant tone than the first part of its namesake, bubbling along like a prime early 80s dance floor number by New Order, Yazoo or Depeche Mode (a band that, along with Neil Young, Butler curiously enough said the songs sounded like a mix between in a Spin Magazine article from July 9). When it comes to electronics, this number is loaded with them and surrounds the other instruments with an alien, almost mechanical dome. But that's not a detriment whatsoever. There doesn't seem to be an instrument this band doesn't know how to utilize to its fullest. "Half Light II" is cinematic and gripping, with several stops, polyrhythms and melodic ideas propelling it into Brian Wilson territory for pop complexity. It never gets too overwhelming even though it's clearly not the first soaringly dramatic piece of the album at this halfway point. "Suburban War" goes for a folkier stripping down of things, bringing out Spanish acoustic guitar and guitar arpeggios on a 12-string Rickenbacker, a la the Byrds. There are even vocal harmonies in such a close-knit folk harmony style and "Suburban War" demonstrates that a folk-rock album from the Arcade Fire could be a true delight too. Indeed, they go off in so many directions with certain moments on this album. Often, you will hear a musical theme for a potential dozen different albums popping up, but the magic of the Arcade Fire is that they usually pack all that into each album of theirs anyway.

"Suburban War" reflects on the grown up phase after moving on from childhood haunts, with the mournful "My old friends, they don't know me now" line being a frequently sung one. Hard rocking venom is the order of the day with 'Month of May," a song with fewer pretensions than most Arcade Fire compositions, which can be a relief when the seriousness and weightiness gets too much (about the only flaw, if you can even call it that, that I have ever seen in the sturdy armour of this group). "Wasted Hours" is also pretty swinging, like a Kinks/Ray Davies observatory song from their late 60s period of suburban British pop shoegazing. There's more humanity and nostalgia involved in this outing for Arcade Fire, and tunes like "Wasted Hours" are a good example, with Butler expressing his regret over things from the past. "Deep Blue" is another finger-popping affair but much more orchestral in its presentation, even going for a rare guitar solo breakdown and that's maybe stretching it a little to call it that. It's stirring in its bottled-up manner, containing more ringing guitar parts than your average Arcade Fire track and lending toward The Suburbs being their most contemporary rock flavoured effort yet. Kicking off with straight piano triplets, "We Used to Wait" is another of the more guitar-based cuts. It's another fine effort and maintains a more hypnotic quality than others, thanks to its banging piano a la The Velvet Underground & Nico.

But this is part of the dichotomy Arcade Fire can set up, where you expect them to deliver something sophisticated and complex but you get something minimal and pedantic instead. And yet, both outcomes can thrill. That's their mark of authenticity toward greatness (even legends can have their one side be much more boring than their other. I can personally say that Bruce Springsteen's solo acoustic/harmonica efforts don't come close to his E Street Band recordings, and I think both Neil Young's acoustic and electric sides match up well but he is often less vital when doing pure country). There are some more strings beneath the surface on "We Used to Wait," which brings me back to Owen Pallett, a valuable contributor as the string arranger if I've ever heard one. Pallett, a violinist and in-demand arranger for others to no one's surprise, is a Toronto-born, classically trained musician that deserves his own gold star for his role, like how Paul Buckmaster could be closely associated with Elton John in his 70s prime. He really creates string parts that get great exposure in the mix and are hard to forget. Closing in on the finish, with "Sprawl (Flatland)" we get the theatric, sombre piece that sounds like a build up to a final climax that never comes as I found out. It's not without its vivid merit but it's a brief, rather sleepy number in comparison to the rest of The Suburbs.

But it plays its way into the bright, 80s techno bliss of "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," another sharp commentary on suburbia that focuses on the constant commercial developments outside the city, hence the title of sprawl. It's also the sublime greatest song on the album, drawing on moody post-punk and electronica from years gone by while containing a bundle of excitement without going heavy on the musical dynamics or layering it with a billion overdubs. There's this sort of pondering throughout the album about whether this suburban sprawl we know today is really necessary and vital or simply just spreading civilization for the sake of the almighty dollar. We never get a full idea if Butler and co. really hate this kind of urbanization and the plundering of countryside but you do get a hint that the modern globalized community we live in is a bit of a boogeyman to them when Chassagne- in a fine starring role on vocals- sings "Sometimes I wonder if this world's so small/Can we ever get away from the sprawl?" The "mountains beyond mountains" term is used to describe the enormity of the mega malls now populating the suburbs they sing of throughout the CD (echoing the childhood of Butler and his brother- the two youngest members of the band by the way at 30 and 27 respectively- who were raised in a conservative Mormon household in the suburbs of Houston. Back when Win was known as Edwin!). It's often the contrast of the present, and what it means for the future, with the carefree past that is at the centre of focus on this album.

However, any question of whether this is some sort of scathing expose or not is answered if you take Win Butler's word for it. He told the New Music Express in a July 31 interview that the album is "neither a love letter, not an indictment of, the suburbs- it's a letter from the suburbs." Which gets me back to another dependable trait with this group is that they don't foist political beliefs and outrage on you like some jaded protest singer. They seem to have a liberal streak through them as most rock bands, speaking highly of folks like Barack Obama, but you just don't get a full view of what they truly think. They present the world in negative and positive lights, report on it all and then let that stand as their message. They're journalists moreso than activists. There's little deciding on what you should think from Arcade Fire and while some who enjoy their sociopolitical appetite to be whetted by such indie artists, most would rather not be drilled by it. And the Arcade Fire's is a welcome approach for many. A tacked-on finale is the lovely 1.5 minute "The Suburbs (Continued)" where Butler opines about the past, but insists if he could have that time back he'd waste it all over again, a revisiting of "Wasted Hours." A wry, heartwarming observation considering all the unsure thoughts and emotions the album frequently touches on through its first 15 tracks.

Alongside his wife, Butler then reprises the chorus of the lead cut and title track. Intriguingly, The Suburbs ends on that note without going for the raging finale you'd think was coming. Instead, it opts to come out of the gates crashing and bucking like a bronco and goes out nestling down in the grass like a foal. And I don't think I'd have it any other way for a tremendous third album from a major act that will hopefully keep us coming back for more of this artistry every three years. While not quite the equal of the symphonically fantastic Neon Bible, it's not far off and comes as a bit of a relief from that album's grim, eternal search through some sort of dark opera or dystopian world. Therefore, it's hard to write that this third one is inferior. It's just an apples and oranges dilemma, frankly. While combining all the elements of their previous two records, the Arcade Fire manage to make #3 the most uplifting, cheery and hopeful thing they've put out yet. Maybe they're getting nicer and happier as they mature. Who knows? So go ahead and award them Album/Record/Song of the year, etc., Grammy people. It will take a lot more than that to sour some of us on these gypsy rogues, the possessors of the ultimate brain power exemplified in contemporary music. Right now, they're making the transition from beloved indie heroes gone international music phenoms look rather easy. Once again, they've unleashed a work destined to be viewed as iconic and legendary.

Track Listing (Rating):

1. The Suburbs (5/5)

2. Ready to Start (5/5)

3. Modern Man (5/5)

4. Rococo (4.5/5)

5. Empty Room (5/5)

6. City with No Children (5/5)

7. Half Light I (5/5)

8. Half Light II (No Celebration) (5/5)

9. Suburban War (4.5/5)

10. Month of May (4/5)

11. Wasted Hours (4.5/5)

12. Deep Blue (4.5/5)

13. We Used to Wait (4/5)

14. Sprawl I (Flatland) (3/5)

15. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) (5/5- Best track)

16. The Suburbs (Continued) (4.5/5)

Review: 4.5/5 stars (A)

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