Arcade Fire... Better Late Than Never
Did you know that Arcade Fire is a really good band? I know! In the last three years, not a single publication, friend of mine, or random person walking down the street has suggested such a thing.
Okay. That's a lie. But you know, sometimes I just can't get down with the latest hip band or TV show or whatever. For whatever reason, there are always certain "of the moment" cultural presences that exhaust me before I've even begun to know them. I think that's because they get embraced by people who are much more hip than I will ever be, and I just don't feel like I will ever be able to keep up. Like, my jeans will never be that skinny, so I should just wait until some less undeground version of said cultural touchstone emerges and enjoy that instead. Instead of Beth Orton, I'll listen to Sandi Thom. Instead of "The Believer," I'll read "Salon." I still get to enjoy a solid product, but I don't have to feel intimidated by the uber-coolness.
Some of you may have noticed that I have a minor hang-up about uber-coolness. To me, that's an attitude that eschews fun of all varieties. And trust me, I have been around this attitude at certain parties. It always gets me in trouble. Here's an example of a conversation I actually had in grad school...
Not Me: "I just got back from seeing [Obscure Polish Play]. It was life-changing."
Me: "Totally. That's how I felt after seeing the Madonna-Britney Spears video this morning."
(chirp. chirp. chirp.)
See, I was trying to be funny, and it just died. "Not Me" refused to laugh about that, and he looked at me as though he thought I actually believed there was a comparison to be made between Obscure Polish Plays and "Me Against the Music." I won't go into all the six thousand reasons I actually said what I said. But suffice it to say, I'm pretty sure "Not Me" had just been talking about Arcade Fire.
And... see? I allow myself to get pushed away from certain things becasue I think it's going to make me stop laughing at myself, at the world, etc. But it turns out that I'm usually hurting myself when I restrict myself that way. "The Believer" is a good magazine, and Beth Orton rules. And as I said earlier, Arcade Fire makes great music. (If you can find it on their very complicated website, listen to the song "Black Mirror" here.)
The Canadian ensemble recently released their second album, "Neon Bible," to much acclaim and very good sales. I bought it last week, and I have been happily absorbed in its lush rock songs ever sense. The review on iTunes correctly likens the band to Bruce Springsteen, both because of lead singer Win Butler's raspy wail of a voice and beacuse of his penchant for lyrics that explore middle-class anxiety with bombastic riffs.
An excellent example of that spirit is on the song "Windowsill," which opens with soft electric strings and the whisper-sung assertion, "Don't wanna hear the noises on TV/Don't want the salesmen coming after me/Don't want to live in my father's house no more." And that need to escape keeps building--along with the number of instruments and the speed of the rhythm--until Butler is railing against media culture, the war, and all the other things that might make someone feel overwhelmed by living right now.
But it never gets so intense that he starts screaming. His vocals are passionate but controlled, which makes the song feel like an almost-explosion. The tension of what never quite breaks out makes the song fascinating, and it certainly recalls some of Springsteen's spookier, folkier music.
On other tracks, there are just so many people in the band that their music can have delicious texture. A song like "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations" stacks choral singing on top of rolling drums on top of a very plaintive series of chimes. It's an epic-sounding lament, made more painful by the refrain, "There's a great black wave in the middle of the sea/For me/For you/For me." Really, the song reminds me of sobbing. It just gets more and more intense as its sadness grows.
Then for fun, there are song like "No Cars Go," where the interplay of men and women's vocals (and people repeatedly shouting "Hey!" in the background) create the breezy energy of running in no particular direction because you just feel that free. Kind of like the energy of U2's "Mysterious Ways," though the songs sound nothing alike.
So there you go. Arcade Fire. "Neon Bible." Awesome. Glad I finally figured that out.