Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

How much can you read into an opening line? The Suburbs opens with “In the suburbs I learn to drive”. What does this mean? Is it setting up a bildungsroman, the adolescent learning to do manly, responsible things? Is it speaking of the character’s yearn to escape, spending his life in the suburbs trying desperately to leave it?

Personally, I like to read it as a statement from the band themselves. On Funeral’s final track, Regine Chassagne mournfully weeps “I’ve been learning to drive, my whole life” using a car as a metaphor for a family, the youngsters graduating from the backseat to the drivers as they become head of the herd. In my mind, what is being said here is “Hey, remember Neon Bible? That album where we tried too hard to be grandiose and came off alienating people? Where we tried to save the world and forgot to save the people in it? Let’s pretend that didn’t happen. This is the real sequel to Funeral”.

And it is. It really is. Everything you loved about Funeral is here, with the added assistance of repeated phrases and explicitly mentioned themes. Maybe it’s lacking in outright riffs that will stay with you for years (go on, humm the intros to Tunnels or Wake Up, I know you can), but the blend of instruments is perhaps more impressive when there isn’t a strong single phrase to fall back on. It is reminiscent initially of The Decemberists’ The Hazards Of Love, being as it is a theatrical and dense concept album complete with handy reminders of what has come before. Some might get bored with the number of times they hear the words “modern”, “kids” or “suburbs” (as we speak I’m developing a drinking game which involves taking a shot every time one of these three words is mentioned, and is guaranteed to hospitalise even the hardiest of drinkers by about track 8), but it certainly succeeds in making the album seem to be a singular vision.

The songs are not consumed by strings or keyboards, and guitars are a constant fixture, Arcade Fire seem closer to The White Stripes or The Strokes than many of their fans might care to admit. Of course, the inventiveness, complexity and lyricism is ten-fold that of most garage rock bands, but when the album does delve into that sort of territory, it comes up with Month Of May, which, quite simply, rocks, and I will fight anyone to the death who claims it has no place on this album. Its irregularity is it’s advantage, the juxtaposition between it and its predecessor on the album, the lilting but a tad dull Suburban War, is one of the highlights of the album, heightened gloriously by a callous cry of “1, 2, 3, 4” by Win Butler, whose voice sounds as beautiful and anthemic (although maybe not as pained or delicate) as it ever has. It is superb that the track came from the same people that made the classically-infused, death-obsessed Funeral, and yet somehow, when you listen to it, the progression makes sense. And finally, a touch of humour from Arcade Fire. How often have they played with urgency and momentum to crowds full of “kids all standing with their arms folded tight”? Month Of May is a hell of a rebuttal to that culture, regardless of it being the one that hails them as Gods.

The opening two tracks, make a fine introduction into what Arcade Fire are trying to do with this album, although after that there is something of a letdown. Rococo is almost cringe-worthy in its patronising lyricism, “lets go down and talk to the modern kids, they will eat right out of your hand, using great big words that they don’t understand” and definitely seems like a dud. It’s followed up by Empty Room, which is akin to a piece of fluff, seeming to take up less space than it actually does. Is it really a whole 3 minutes? It seems to come and go with barely a whisper, possibly due to the use of Regine instead of Win on vocals. City With No Children picks it back up, built around a single riff in a way that does not quite suit the rest of the album, but along with the hand claps and fist-punching vocals it grants the album a real sense of occasion after something of a purple patch.

The two Half Lights are too meandering to be classics but are definitely progressive enough to maintain interest. The tempo is a little slow and at this point of the album you begin to wonder how it will sustain 16 tracks and over it an hour. In all honesty, it can’t, tracks 3-5 could go without losing much of the album’s drive or purpose, if anything it would help it, and have TWO Half Lights seems excessive, even if they do separate jobs. If I were being picky, I would give Half Light I the chop due to how weak Regine’s vocals sound and how resistant it is to any change of style over its 4 minutes. I was waiting for a sudden Wake Up-esque breakdown to lighten the tone, but it never came.

Suburban War is pleasant enough, a mid-album track that is enough of a placeholder to not disrupt the album, but it doesn’t seem to warrant its own existence, as a singular piece, much like a few of the previously mentioned tracks. And this point it all felt that Arcade Fire were building up to something that wasn’t happening. When Month Of May hit, I realised they were just taking their sweet time about it. And then the rest of the album happened, and I was gob-smacked.

Perhaps the intention was to make a bottom-heavy album, which is slightly strange but this is Arcade Fire after all, but, for me at least, every track from Month Of May to the end is astonishing (accepting the fact that The Suburbs (Continued) is something of an epilogue), each one a powerful and detailed individual track that adds to the surrounding tracks as well as being plain brilliant in their own right. Wasted Hours spins a perfect tale of being a youth in a boring town, wanting to get out and see the world, and then looking back on these days of yearning with fond nostalgia. Deep Blue is another track I have heard people talk ill of because of it seeming out of place (re: Month Of May) but this unpredictability underpins what makes the second half of this album so special. The lyrics are intriguing in their strangeness but are addictive, as is the more upbeat nature of the instruments.

We Used To Wait is a masterpiece that many will fail to understand due to it being so self-referential. Again, Arcade Fire pull out a little comedy as they recall a time where patience was a virtue, where waiting days to hear via letter about an old friend was a worthy wait. The tension built up in the minute-long outro as the words “wait for it” are chanted intermittently in the background is an equal to the tension of that letter. Wait for an envelope to drop, wait for a chorus to drop. But, as in this case, “sometimes in never came”. A masterpiece in bringing the listener into the story and a gorgeous exercise in restraint.

Sprawl is a good word to use for many things, the concept of a suburban area, the album format as a whole with a sprawl of songs making it up, even Arcade Fire themselves, anyone whose seen them play live would agree that a sprawl of multi-instrumentalists is exactly what they are. We hear the two very distinct sides of Arcade Fire in the two Sprawl tracks, from a doom-laden, potently gothic tale of despair to a synth-drenched track I’d have to describe as Regine’s best ever, and suiting her relatively limited talents as a vocalist superbly. It is the longest on the album, but it does not outstay its welcome, and it shows quite how capable this band are at throwing everything into the mix and making it gel together and work. Even though the album is an hour old by this stage, a point at which bands would normally be accepting the need for two-minute filler to get the album done, the extravagance is not unwelcome.

And then, all of a sudden, the album is over, returning to where it begun, merging with the first track to create a perfect circle. If there’s one thing, one little lesson to learn from this album, Win Butler urges that it is to move past the feeling. Maybe we can all go there together, band, listener, the sprawling suburbs that are craved and yet disposed of so easily. All of us, moving past the feeling.

(Rating: 18/20)

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Owen Pallett – Heartland

Dropping the name “Final Fantasy” and replacing it with his own is a step in the right direction for Owen Pallett. It signifies that he is willing to step out from behind the veil and show himself and his personality off without fear. The likes of Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear and Beirut may have been blessed by his golden strings in the past, but by releasing a record under his own name, Pallett seems finally ready to show a piece of himself.

It is odd, then, that “Heartland” sounds more complex and layered than not only Pallett’s previous work, but damn near everything else that can be heard these days. It is a shock at first to hear the skill of a single person wrought large across a cinematic landscape of luscious strings and tones. Pallett has brought his personality to bear on the music he crafts.

But what is his personality? Judging by “Heartland”, it is one with haughty aims, not just for the operatic, but also for the integration between the operatic and the joyfully addictive. Whilst the opening few tracks are something of a slog to get through, the bleakly catchy syncopation of “Keep The Dog Quiet” notwithstanding, Pallett relaxes the listener as the album progresses, and saves some of the best tracks for the back-end of the record.

Though the first half of the album has plenty of highlights, Pallett begins to unfold his music into the realms of magic from “Oh Heartland, Up Yours!” onwards. Suddenly a narrative thread is introduced, giving credence to the suggestions that this album has a Heaven/Hell style concept. The titular Heartland that at this point in the album seemed to be a wondrous place of beauty and isolation (not unlike the island Veckatimest that Grizzly Bear focused on last year) is shunned by the protagonist, Lewis. This thread runs through the rebellious “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” and the ultimately uplifting (despite its place amongst the concept) “Tryst With Mephistopheles”.

It feels as though a monumental amount of work was put into this album, because not a single thing sounds out of place. The tempo and balance remain faultless throughout, even the off-putting rhythms of “Flare Gun”, which comes across as a demented Fantasia outtake, do not knock the listener out of stride. “Heartland” is ambitiously ornate, but accessible for the most part, creating a classical/pop crossover album that does not sound as if it is forcing itself into that category. And the moods sway from optimism to pessimism (note the contrast between the closing two tracks) cleverly enough to make it appear that the style is constantly evolving as the album progresses.

Really, Heartland is an exceptional album that stutters at the start to achieve its lofty targets, but has a breathtaking second half. Every element that makes up its composition, all the simple but necessary things, has been expertly put in place by Pallett, whose ethereal vocals and charmingly ambivalent lyricism should not be overlooked simply because the melodies create to assist it are so luscious. A true all-round victory for The Former Mr. Fantasy.

Yeasayer – Odd Blood

The build-up to Yeasayer’s second record has been fairly impressive. Back in February they contributed one of the highlights of the Dark Was The Night compilation, the spirited “Tightrope”. They played a few major gigs over the summer, impressing particularly at Bonnaroo. And then, just a couple of months ago, they dropped “Ambling Alp” on us, as the alpha male of the album. Joyous, infectious, and perfectly combining euphoric pop hooks with Yeasayer’s usual ethereal texture, the anticipation for this record had suddenly gone through the roof.

The worries I had before listening to the full album was that their debut, “All Hour Cymbals”, was simply far too inconsistent (or even worse, too consistently mediocre) for “Odd Blood” to warrant the attention it was receiving. Were Yeasayer simply doing the same with “Ambling Alp” as they had with “2080”? To create properly complete and enjoyable album, Yeasayer would have to concentrate as much on the weaker tracks as on their big-hitters.

That’s not exactly what they’ve done, listening to the album you can hear exactly which songs the band feel are the strong ones and the weak ones. However, there are a number of notable improvements. Yeasayer employ more variety over the course of the album, and the unpredictability is welcome. A pulsating dance track such as “ONE” is as likely to appear next as a more traditional Yeasayer song, ie one that borrows from their usual well of funky neo-psychedelia, see “Madder Red”.

A certain inspiration has been drawn, in places, from the new fleet of “experimental pop” bands, Animal Collective and !!! particularly. Yeasayer are happy to put the vocals at the forefront, though, Chris Keating switching finely between disco-falsetto and deep, dark call to arms. This is showcased impressively on “Rome”, a song that likes to imply it is a simple dance track, but forks off into jittery keyboard solos and sudden stabs of high-pitched wailing. The pulse beats and the fingers click but as Keating cries “Rome is gonna be mine” the feeling is that this is more of a threatening song.

One disadvantage of this influence, however, is when Yeasayer try to replicate the sound they aspire to as opposed to simply using it as one ingredient. They are well-equipped at making decent songs with one or two stand outs on an album, so I don’t really think they need to do any copy-catting. The disappointing, almost cringe-worthy pop of “Love Me Girl” and the emptily robotic opener “The Children” could have done with being left out, the band are clearly capable of sleeker, more infectious fare.

I have to drop a bit of praise to the bass on this album, on certain tracks, “Ambling Alp” particularly, it carries a flair and rhythm-enhancing satisfaction that is uncommon around a lot of bands, particularly ones in this genre. I’ve always enjoyed Yeasayer’s basslines, both on All Hour Cymbals and the variations that are performed live, so it’s good to hear a few more treats added to their collections on this record.

The quality is higher than the previous album, the record as a whole carries more variety, and although there are weak points, mainly involving lazy attempts to re-create other sounds, there is still a lot to enjoy.

13/20

Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid Of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

(Side Note: I’m well aware of my faults as a writer, my main fault being that I’m not one. Writers construct thoroughly planned, cleverly worded and structurally sound articles. I write biased, neurotically-charged posts made up on a whim and written hurriedly, with very little proof-reading. Acceptance of these facts is the first step on the path to redemption, and I plan on starting here, by doing what proper music writers could chuck out in their sleep, but something I avoid unreservedly, an actual album review. Not a summary, a short review or a track-by-track rating. An actual, full-length review. Well, an attempt at one anyway, if I fail, I’ll go back to random lists, vague discussions on wide-ranging subjects and occasional topical points.)

The first thing you notice about I Am Not Afraid Of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, if you are someone with the mentality to make snap judgements on albums, is the title. Rolling it around your mind, you may wonder to yourself, is this intended to be a light-hearted comedy title, or should the message be taken deadly seriously? Will Yo La Tengo, a band known for skipping nonchalantly between musical styles, actually beat you to the ground with their sounds?

If this 2006 release were the prize-fighter its title implied, it would not be a big-swinging one-hit KO kind of boxer, more the kind of long-lasting fighter that will wear you down with a number of swift blows. The individual tracks may not hit hard, but after the albums 77 minute running length is up it might feel that way.

Most accurately described as a conglomeration of the ideas Yo La Tengo have produced throughout their career, IANAOYAIWBYA (apologies for the acronym problem) acts as a neat summary of the bands’ previous work, offering fans of the back catalogue more of the same, whilst introducing newcomers to their varied style.

It is difficult to discuss this album without throwing the word “varied” in a few times. Opening with the epic sonic jam, “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind”, in which a bass drone and a gorgeously carefree guitar swim around each other in a frenzy of noise, each member shows off a breath-taking level of skill. Ira Kaplan’s summery call to “slide, slide, slide down the waterslide” fits perfectly amongst the rubble of sound, immediately disproving any potential claims that this would be better suited as an instrumental. Along with the closing track, which copies this formula, the sounds seem to imitate pop whilst never quite achieving it. The existence of these two tracks, which together total 23 minutes, is quite unexpected considering the filling that comes between these two thick slices of musical bread.

The soothing soft-pop of “Mr Tough” and “Beanbag Chair” seem instantly recognisable, which would be a bad thing if the whole album were peppered with these kinds of derivative moments of recollection, but the variety of styles on display ensures that as a whole the album stays fresh throughout. The lapses into pop may detract those who wish for more complex fare, but there is a sense of fun that is infectious and spills over into the moodier tracks such as “I Feel Like Going Home” and “Black Flowers”.

A great strength of this album is that it engaged the listener in genres most indie bands dare not touch. The laid back jazz of “Sometimes I Don’t Get You” is a surprise but it is suited to the album, and forms a triptych of nods to the 60s alongside the Byrds-esque swooning of “The Race Is On Again” and the classic rock ‘n’ roll present on “Watch Out For Me Ronnie”. Yo La Tengo stand out from some of their counterparts not necessarily because they are more skilful at the straightforward indie guitar songs, but because they devote so much time to songs that stray from the expected style.

Unfortunately, the wealth of ideas does have its down-sides. The album is too long, and though you can certainly make a case for keeping every track on the album, that doesn’t mean they should be there. By the time the final track is reached, “The Story of Yo La Tengo” is reached, the listener has been pounded with enough body blows to have them waiting for the bell to sound, making its 12 minute length unwelcome. There is no doubt the track is a fine achievement on its own, but incorporating it at the end of an album that is already packed to bursting makes it difficult to sustain the attempted mood.

The melancholy instrumental “Daphnia”, which could be considered the middle track, also seems out of place. The structure of two vast jams, one at either end, with light pop tracks and a haze of varied genres in between, would work fine, so why feel the need for a sparse, tedious 9 minute groan of a track? It dislodges the fine atmosphere built up by the surrounding songs, and seems to lack any purpose or direction, either on its own or as part of the album.

Minor niggles aside, this is a very good album, which offers new listeners a reference point with which to look back over two decade of classic indie, yet seems to be the album that Yo La Tengo were slowly building towards all those years. This is a fine achievement, and definitely worth listening to, because even if you only find a few tracks that suit your tastes, you will find it difficult to get those tracks out of your head.

Frightened Rabbit: The Midnight Organ Fight

This is not a review, technically, its far too short and mostly scatterbrain. It’s also being written while I listen to the album, which some would consider a bad idea. This is just a reminder to people (and to myself, perhaps), that this is a damn good album. I fear that Frightened Rabbit have come around a decade and a bit too late, they would have fit in perfectly in the mid 90s, providing a compliment to the more swaggering BritPop that had emerged. Their music is softer and gentler, but it is more interesting and their lyrics subtly complex. Perhaps then they would get a little bit more of the recognition they deserve.

This particular album, their second, which was released in 2007, has enough variety to sustain the length, and although it seems to come alongside the current wave of indie-rock it seems to hark back to a simpler time. I am almost tempted to call the album timeless, as there on a certain level they engage in what the Coen brothers may refer to as “old-timey material”. The band seem to recognise this on the rhythmic “Old Old Fashioned”, where they call for “that soft, soft static with a human voice underneath”.

The self-deprecation shown on this album befits standard indie, but Frightened Rabbit are happy to throw a curveball now and again, the plodding lament “My Backwards Walk” suddenly breaks off into a quick-fire repeating off the line “you’re the shit and I’m knee-deep in it” just at the point it is least expected. The bitter lyrics are reminiscent of “Final Straw”-era Snow Patrol, as are the tortured Celtic vocals. Lead man Scott Hutchinson seems much happier than most of his rivals, however, to express self-disgust, referring to himself as a “cripple” and a “modern leper on his last legs” before the gorgeous opening track, “The Modern Leper”, has even finsihed.

Often I prefer albums which are sporadically excellent as opposed to those that are consistently pleasant, but I would call this an exception, it is refereshing that average tracks (in the context of the album) do not cause the album to lag or feel excessively long, and instead of putting filler songs near the end of the album, there are instead a number of minute-long interludes dotted around which are moodily interesting but do not ruin the flow of the album, and they are welcome.

So overall, this really is a very good album, and I almost feel like re-writing my Top 42 Albums list that I posted earlier in the week to reflect this. They really do a lot right and if you’re into a form of meloncholy but uplifting pop that provides both smart poetry and consistent quality you really should get this.