ARCADE FIRE Funeral (Merge)

I really tried to like Arcade Fire. Their debut album “Funeral” seemed to be hewn from just about everything I enjoyed about music: every time I settled down to listen to it I’d initially experience giddy intoxication at its Godspeed You Black Emperor!-plays-pop moves, but a few tracks later the hangover would strike and I’d just be bored bored bored.

However, after prolonged and concerted exposure, I’m gradually becoming a fan. Sweeping of gesture and substantial of melody, they’re almost like a rickety indie tribute to a U2 caught midway between “The Unforgettable Fire” and “The Joshua Tree”.

The propulsive “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” is reminiscent of their avowed influence Neutral Milk Hotel, and “Une Année Sans Lumiere” is a relaxed Franglais bubblebath (Stereolab crossed with Crowded House, perhaps), at least until its frothy coda. “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” is all high drama, but diminished by Win Butler’s yelping vocals that convey little emotion beyond unfocussed panic and confusion. “Crown Of Love” is a sweeping, twinkly indie ballad, and a Caribbean lilt gently rocks “Haiti” back and forth. On the other hand, songs like “Wake Up” seem to overreach themselves, stadium ambition on a home studio budget, and it shows most in the arrangement, all thump and bluster where a modicum of streamlined clarity might better serve the sentiments.

So there’s far more to “Funeral” than I first thought, and in vinyl garb, with a gatefold sleeve and an illustrated lyrics insert, it’s a pleasantly tactile object. If I’m not totally convinced, I can at least at last hear something of what their many supporters claim for them.

ARCADE FIRE Neon Bible (Merge)

In which the Canadian collective sashay elegantly around the difficult second album syndrome. Compared with the word-of-mouth success “Funeral”, “Neon Bible”’s focus pulls from the personal to the universal. It’s a darker, more sombre work (yes, a darker, more sombre record than one inspired by the deaths of its makers’ relatives), all dark shadows and swirling fog.

I was none too impressed by “Neon Bible” at first, but as the band’s albums are wont to do, it kinda crept up on me. It’s a blankly political, non-specifically paranoid work, teetering on the edge of global apocalypse, albeit one that still packs perky pop tunes like “Keep The Car Running”. The title track is – well, can we call it folk noir? – acoustic guitar under flickering striplights. “Intervention” introduces a pipe organ, and if any instrument is a greater signifier of ambition and intent I can’t think of it right now. (Imagine what Gabriel-era Genesis could’ve been like if Tony Banks got his hands on one!) It certainly impresses upon the listener the fact that this is Serious Music. For all that, it’s a thrilling moment. Both the arrangement and Win Butler’s vocals build to a climactic intensity (and if you’re opening with a pipe organ, that’s a lot to top). "Ocean Of Noise" is almost like something you’d find on the soundtrack to a David Lynch film exploring the dark, twisted underbelly of apple-pied, picket-fenced suburbia, swollen with sweeping strings and mariachi horns. “(Antichrist Television Blues)”, with its gabbled post-9/11 paranoia, is one of the album’s finest moments, an essay’s worth of unpicking awaiting its lyrics, but its peak is arguably “Keep The Car Running”. Here everything slides gloriously into place: the sonic palette of the extended ensemble (those delicious woodwind flumes in particular), the rattling good tune, the themes of escape enfolded into a lyric of almost nursery-rhyme simplicity. Oddly enough, it’s a remake of a song from their eponymous debut EP.

Yeah, yeah, more grudging acceptance for an Arcade Fire album; when will I ever learn? But I’m edging closer to enjoying their music with every release. On vinyl, “Neon Bible” is packaged as a heavyweight double pressing (three sides of music, one of etching), albeit one that doesn’t enhance a rather sockbound production, which also includes a coupon entitling the purchaser to a free download of the entire album in MP3 form; noted, with thanks.

ARCADE FIRE / DEVENDRA BANHART & THE GROGS Manchester Central 11 December 2010


Devendra Banhart and his Grogs give a pretty good account of themselves. The likes of “Shabop Shalom” and “Little Yellow Spider” cleave fairly close to the recorded versions and there was next to none of that all-too-easily-parodied early Bolan warble with which some of his work is afflicted.  Although hardly his fault, though, his music is clearly not built for venues of this size, meaning that it sort of flops down in an exhausted heap before it gets halfway down the hall.               

Arcade Fire’s music, though, is increasingly built to carry in venues sized way beyond this one. When Win Butler congratulates us on making this the fastest selling show of the band’s British tour, I wonder how much that has to do with this being one of the smallest venues on the band’s itinerary. (No doubt they could’ve crammed the nearby MEN Arena had Scissor Sisters not got there first tonight.) They almost seem in danger of overwhelming the venue formerly known as G-Mex, being sonically as indistinct and booming as Devendra had been politely reserved. Still,  there’s lots of pretty visuals to keep us entertained, and the physical effort and commitment they put into the show can’t be faulted: nothing about their performance seemed remotely phoned in, even if the setlist - dominated by “The Suburbs”, with “Funeral” following and “Neon Bible” plugging the gaps – might not be my ideal, majoring on the big production numbers with scant room for pace-changing quiet reflection. “Ready To Start” and “Month Of May” make for something of a grinding, repetitious opening duo, and “Haiti” seems like a downright weird choice early on in the set. There’s a somewhat grandiose aspect to their performance, with false endings cropping up all over the shop, although the gentle liberties taken with the source material do sometimes work in their favour, as when “Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)” disappears into a giant cloud of noise and distortion, emerging as “Rebellion (Lies)”. And then there are the many of their songs that are so good as to be indestructible under any circumstances – take a step forward “No Cars Go”, “Intervention” (complete with giant pipe organ images), “Keep The Car Running” and the glorious slow motion Blondie of “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”.               

So, they can make alt.rock on a grand scale without sacrificing the humanity and the heart; in fact, Win announces that £1 from every ticket sold will be donated to provide healthcare in rural Haiti. Somehow, though, I feel curiously unmoved by the whole good-but-not-great  experience. The pop Godspeed You! Black Emperor they might be, sugarcoating their take on the apocalypse with tunes and choruses, but for some reason that feels insufficient tonight.

ARCADE FIRE The Suburbs (Mercury) 

There’s a whole lot not to like about Arcade Fire’s third long player. There’s the innate condescension it displays towards the titular conurbations, as if living anywhere other than a Montreal loft puts a clampdown on creativity. There’s the way the packaging contains no record label credit whatsoever, as if the band are desperately attempting to delude themselves that they’re not signed to the same multinational corporation as Bon Jovi. There’s the way they’ve, somewhat pointlessly, cut each track to a 12” lacquer and then needledropped them to create the master “so that the CD and digital version of the record sound just like the vinyl”.  If only, not that I wouldn’t love to hear those 12” lacquers for myself. And, finally, being their longest album yet, at a baggy 64 minutes, it inevitably sags with bloat in places.

Musically “The Suburbs” is surely Arcade Fire’s most diverse album yet. There’s barrelhouse piano rolling through the opening title track, yet five minutes later “Ready To Start” is channelling Iggy’s “Lust For Life”. “Modern Man” is the record’s first masterpiece, elegant, clean and crisp despite its stagger of a melody. “Rococo” is an infuriatingly earwormy generation gapper, finding Win Butler despairing of “the modern kids” (“Oh my dear god what is that horrible song they’re singing?”). “Empty Room” almost achieves the conceit of wailing, punky power pop with violins – a pilled-up “Rockaria!”, perhaps.  “Half Light I” is stately and magisterial, not quite disguising that its second-hand sentiment echoes “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”, the first song on the band’s first album. Describing an Arcade Fire song as a frenetic rocker suggests underachievement on their part, and so it is with “Month Of May”. “We Used To Wait”, though, is another of the album’s highlights, a song that might prove as potent a my generational moment as that famous one by The Who. For what did we used to wait? Letters to arrive. See, you’re engulfed in wistful nostalgia already, aren’t you? The railroad sounds that open “Sprawl I (Flatland)” remind that Arcade Fire are the Godspeed You! Black Emperor that write lyrics and choruses and wonders like this anti-nostalgic trip back “to find the places we used to stay…to find the places we used to play”. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, which follows, might be Arcade Fire at their finest, not just for Regine Chassagne’s  opening line “They heard me singing and they told me to stop”, fragrantly ironic given past critical reaction to her voice. Its gorgeous slow-motion Blondie throb summarises the album’s concerns in a Faberge nutshell. Finally, Muzak-y coda “The Suburbs (Continued)” sounds as if it should be accompanied by soft-focus shots of pastel shopping malls.

”The Suburbs” contains some of the most human(e), touching and simply best music  they’ve ever made. It’s a nostalgia bullet for people of a certain age, broadly those of us who did some growing up in the 70s. Driving is a central theme, but there’s no Springsteen-esque sense of escape, or outrunning demons, because the protagonists always seem to end up where they’ve started. In fact, with its air of quiet resignation in the face of impending apocalypse, the album recalls Canadian director Don McKellar’s marvellous 1998 film “Last Night”.  Despite the technical shenanigans it doesn’t sound marvellous on vinyl, though. This dense, compacted music is almost Spectorian at times, and not a lot can be done to unpick its wall of sound.

ARCADE FIRE / NOAH AND THE WHALE Manchester Evening News Arena 31 August 2011


Noah And The Whale play polite folk-pop, hemmed in by their posh three-piece suits. They might not be the band who covered The Beatles in school assembly anymore, but they’re still the band who sing about once covering The Beatles in school assembly, and it’s this kind of gaucheness that underlines their entire set. Still, they do a decent job of swelling their sound to arena-sized proportions, even if 45 minutes of their music is more than sufficient.


I remember being underwhelmed when I first (and last) saw Arcade Fire, at the venue formerly known as G-Mex last December, but tonight they’re something like a revelation. The stage set posits them under an illuminated cinema marquee and in front of wood panelling redolent of their detested 70s suburban nightmares, their arrival prefaced by flickering film trailers depicting Midwichian teenage ennui and oppressive conformity. Yet when they burst into action with “Ready To Start” it’s a thrilling spinetingler of a moment, one of those not-as-frequent-as-might-be-hoped reminders of the power of live performance.


Their hold over the audience barely slips during the evening, perhaps loosening only when they play something unknown to me called “Speaking In Tongues”. Cruelly betraying its titular debt to Talking Heads, it gets me thinking about how much of “The Suburbs” is predicated  on that band circa the second side of “More Songs About Buildings And Food” and the first of “Fear Of Music”. That suspicion recedes, however, as classic after classic comes tumbling out of the setlist. What’s most surprising is that even their most mean-spirited, audience-sniping moments are rehabilitated tonight: “Rococo” is a perfectly acceptable toe-tapper (spiked with a snippet of “Champagne Supernova” if is to be believed, though I must admit it sailed right over my head), and “Month Of May” becomes an astonishing Stooges-meets-Joy Division wipeout. The feedback and distortion bridge between “Suburban War” and “Wake Up” is also thrilling, and the way “The Suburbs” melts into its faux-luxe reprise “The Suburbs (Continued)” is a nice touch but, played late in the set, some of the “Funeral” material appears overwhelmed in this vast space.


Generally, though, almost everything about their performance is great, both its content and presentation, and even the sound isn’t too awful, certainly better than I recall from both Roxy Music’s performance here earlier in the year and Arcade Fire’s Manchester Central show. Preconceptions neatly undermined, it’s a darn fine gig.