Review Summary: David Bowie's favorite band debuts with some excellently crafted tracks and produce a solid, emotional, and at times brilliant album.
If there is any one figure in music that you must always admire, it's David Bowie. The man is just overall a cool guy. He has it all: the rock opera, the hair, the music, the classic, and on top of all that, a pretty successful career on film. He was absolutely mesmerizing in the otherwise forgettable "The Prestige", and who could forget his academy award deserving performance in "The Labrynth"? Even alongside Muppet knock-offs, the man could still play it cool. Needless to say, his music taste should be flawless as well, right? That brings us to The Arcade Fire. Ziggy Stardust's favorite new band, The Arcade Fire, has reaped the benefit of Bowie's seal of approval, even jamming with the man on stage. Not only that, they had the gift of opening for U2 on the Vertigo tour for a couple shows, joining the Bono boys on a cover of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" on their last date. The gods of rock and roll seemingly can't get enough of these guys, and that's a surefire way to build up loads of hype around the strange and emotional soundscape that is The Arcade Fire. But after the Kooks, Arctic Monkeys, Cold War Kids, and Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah!, does anyone really want
To The Arcade Fire, the hype is not an unfair setting of expectations, but instead the justification of an excellent album. The Arcade Fire are a Canadian collective of musicians who put together an album built off the tragedy that kept striking family members. The result is a passionately emotional album, entitled Funeral
for the irony of naming their full-length debut with such closure, according to them. Husband and wife duo Win Butler and Regine Chassagne front the group with an intense set of vocal arrangements not really caring for melodic sensibility or keeping in mind vocal ranges, backed by a revolving door of musicians, mainly Richard Reed Parry, William Butler, Timothy Kingsbury, and Howard Bilerman. Not since Neutral Milk Hotel broke up has a group been able to put together songs so innocently, with childish feels that hit with emotional passion. Throughout Funeral
, Win's lyrics and god-bless-him-he's-trying vocal style wrench at the heart, dropping lyrics that have a viewpoint rarely seen in music today. On "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)", he sweetly hums "If my parent's are crying, then I'll dig a tunnel from my window to yours"
, capturing a toddlers idea of escape and friendship in a single line. Coupled with that songs wondrous piano intro and heartfelt-but-catchy guitar hook, the song is more a musical fantasy than an indie rock piece.
That fantasy is what sets the tone for the rest of the album. With airy production and sweetly innocent vocals a la My Bloody Valentine, the album feels like a fairy tale happening under the jaded eye of grown-ups. The first five songs follow a theme of a series of neighborhoods buried by a snowstorm. Pausing only for a French/English entr'acte, the emotion of this stretch ranges from the twisted fantasy of the opener to the melodramatic, over the top anthemic feel of "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)" and "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)", resolving with the gently weeping acoustic "Neighborhood #4 (Kettles)". The Arcade Fire execute their miniature indie opera so brilliantly, it's curious as to why they didn't finish the concept. The powerful span of feeling during the five song set is mesmerizing, particularly in "Power Out". There, Howard Bilerman's non-stop 16th notes set the stage for a powerful feel, and The Arcade Fire go all out with strings, glockenspiels, and a soaring set of backup vocals from Regine Chassagne. No part of this song is left un-thought through, as from start to finish it's a masterfully crafted piece. Butler truly outdoes himself here, determined to sing the note cleanly when another man might have used falsetto or a raspy scream. Instead, he sings clean and high, not apologizing for not having the strongest voice, and it's wonderfully real. When he yelps "When the power's out in the heart of man, take it from your heart, and put it in your hand,"
it's uplifting. Butler's vocal style once was described as similar to the way Jonny Greenwood used to play guitar: energetic, noisy, but always past one hundred percent. Funeral
mostly works that way as well.
On all of Funeral
's songs, it's obvious that The Arcade Fire are trying to be better than any band out there. All their songs are gut wrenching and are carefully tinkered to be the absolute best that they can be. Even on Funeral
's lone dip into schmaltz, "Crown of Love", The Arcade Fire take a beaten path and make it a shiny highway. Disregarding that awful analogy, what the Arcade Fire do is play a standard 50's waltz and build it up with strings and another sweet set of vocals from Butler, with Chassagne angelically ahh-ing in the background. The moment in the song when Butler flips octaves is truly worth the wait, and Chassagne's eerie falsettos soaring over the devolving rock finale are killer. The Arcade Fire do something similar to that several times on the Funeral
: they take pop and morph it into their own twisted sound. On "Rebellion (Lies)", The Arcade Fire take the standard uhn-tiss-khat-tiss beat and with pianos and layered vocals by Butler, create an album highlight. The shinier companion to "Power Out", "Rebellion" again makes everything bigger to make it better.
That over the top style is done so well by The Arcade Fire, it's actually surprising when they pull back for a slower track. This is where the less notable tracks of Funeral
come in. "Une Annee Sans Lumiere" is a good song, gentle acoustic guitar gliding along over one note bass, and on another album it would be a highlight, but because of the sheer monstrosity of some of the tracks on Funeral
, it's not remembered as clearly as some of the drop dead highlights. Similar fates befall "Kettles" and "Laika", the latter being a repetitive and disappointingly formula track, who's lone stand out moment is when Win and Regine chant in unison "If you want something, don't ask for nothing! If you are nothing, don't ask for something!"
. The track isn't bad but it's a big drop-off coming from "Tunnels". On the flipside, The Arcade Fire, in an effort to be so big, can sound a little cliché. "Wake Up" is a good standard Arcade Fire song, but it goes a little too far with the harps, overdone strings and the Les Miserables chorus. It's good for a few listens, but when it goes into the tambourine filled jazzy ending, "Wake Up" loses the feel it meant to create. It's emotional, and sometimes blissfully good, but for the first time on Funeral
it can feel like too much.
As the album comes to a close, the beautiful voice of Regine Chassagne comes into play. Bands such as Sonic Youth and Straylight Run have gotten flak for having "the girl songs" on the album, but The Arcade Fire know very well how to use Chassagne. A better singer than Butler, Chassagne sounds comfortable and more on key than Win on her two tracks, the lyrically haunting "Haiti" and the equally haunting and epic sounding "In the Backseat". The former is a playful sounding song, ironic, as the lyrics are some of the darkest on the album. Chassagne sings sweetly "Guns can't kill what soldiers can't see. In the forest we are hiding, unmarked graves where flowers grow"
. The innocent delivery of those very real lyrics add to that grown up fairy tale feel mentioned earlier. "In The Backseat" on the other hand, does not mask the lyrics of it with singsong delivery and music. It's heavy, with sad strings, and Chassagne singing with a cry that is reminiscent of a rebel trapped in the enemies arms. Her emotional cry at the end symbolizes the whole emotion put behind Funeral
. Despite the tragedy the band members faced, they made a triumphant album. During "In The Backseat", Chassagne sings lyrics that in paper look unstable and random, as though all thoughts had must be said out loud by Regine. She weeps "My family tree's
losing all its leaves, crashing towards the driver's seat, the lightning bolt made enough heat to melt the street beneath your feet,"
and the song fades into nothing, leaving the strings alone to finish one of the strongest debut albums of all time.
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
Crown of Love
In The Backseat