After a more tentative self-titled debut EP, this Montreal, Quebec band (led by the husband-and-wife team of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne) delivered an instant classic with this richly passionate full-length debut, which is so named due to the recent deaths of several band members’ relatives. Appropriately, this album is often sadly atmospheric and elegiac, yet their intense music is also undeniably joyous and life affirming. The band’s layered sound, replete with accordions, lush strings, shimmering guitars, delicate piano, and booming drums (as well as bells, whistles, synths, etc.), is at once instantly familiar (evoking The Cure, Van Morrison, U2, Kate Bush, Talking Heads, Neutral Milk Hotel, Pixies, and various “emo” bands) yet entirely their own, and the album gets off to a galvanizing start on “Neighborhood # 1 (Tunnels)” (one of several songs about the neighborhood), which showcases Butler’s emotive, wavery, damn near hysterical vocals. Sad, atmospheric, and anthemic all at once, this song makes you want to sing out loud, as does the equally brilliant “Neighborhood # 2 (Laika),” which is distinguished by its staccato verses, militant beats, and some fantastic rhythmic surges. “Une Annee Sans Lumiere,” a delicate duet, provides a brief breather, though the song picks up with a barrage of drums and angular guitars towards the end. “Neighborhood # 3 (Power Out)” is definitely one of the album’s most intense tracks, its edgy, rhythmic energy recalling early U2, but “Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles),” a pretty string-swelled ballad, is comparatively reserved, while “Crown of Love” continues the album’s rather sedate mid-section with some blue-eyed soul, at least until the end when it surprisingly shifts into a propulsive disco-y groove. The grandly epic “Wake Up” is probably the album’s best song, as the band aims for the sky and hits a bulls eye with a big anthemic sing along, while Chassagne sings lead (as she does from time to time, though Butler is usually the main vocalist) on their melodic ode to “Haiti,” whose most notable attribute is its hooky keyboards. “Rebellion (Lies)” is perhaps the album’s poppiest track, with yet another propulsive groove and rousing sing along chorus, while “In the Backseat” is another Chassagne showcase, this one a soaringly emotional Kate Bush-like ballad. Sure, charges of “pretentiousness” are likely to dog tracks such as this, but bombast is becoming on this band, as it allows their beautifully orchestrated yet often quite rocking anthems to ascend to soaring crescendos. It’s quite exhilarating most of the time, though perhaps some of the ballads get a bit boring at times and the band’s theatrical delivery can come close to being too over the top. Still, this band (consisting of several multi-instrumentalists) possesses considerable instrumental ingenuity, and these songs reveal hidden depths upon repeat listens; it took awhile for this album to grow on me but eventually I became damn near addicted to it. With 10 mostly-superb songs clocking in at a manageable 48 minutes, I know what album will top my 2004 “album of the year” ballot.
Neon Bible (Merge ’07) Rating: A-
It's hard enough to follow up a great debut album, let alone a serious "best album of the decade" contender like Funeral (just ask The Strokes), but by and large Neon Bible is up for the task, even if it inevitably falls short of its brilliant predecessor, on which the band seemed to spring from out of nowhere with a wonderfully strange, theatrical, and utterly unique new sound. This album seems more standard, the performances more restrained, and as such it doesn't deliver quite the same level of emotional highs and lows that I experience when listening to Funeral. Still, given how solid this second installment is I suppose that's nitpicking, for the band shows off many of the same strengths as previously, chief among them being a richly colorful sound encompassing atypical instrumentation such as swelling strings, oddball accordion, and magical high-pitched piano. Also, the first-class rhythm section keeps the up-tempo tunes moving propulsively along, choir-like choruses provide more than a few rousing sing along moments, and Butler's world weary, increasingly pessimistic lyrics (and his delivery of them; he still sings lead about 3/4 of the time) have a poetic grace. Again, as on Funeral the band has a knack for delivering joyously uplifting music even when delivering dispiriting lyrics, and though the album has taken me longer to appreciate than Funeral and hasn't grabbed a hold of me nearly as tightly, Neon Bible is still an extremely strong sophomore set that confirms the band's standing as one of the best in the business today. The band at their best remain a deeply powerful and affecting proposition, particularly on songs such as "Keep the Car Running," "Intervention," "The Well and the Lighthouse," "Windowsill," and especially "No Cars Go."
The Suburbs (Merge ’10) Rating: A-
This album hit #1 on the U.S. Billboard charts, the band played a sold out Madison Square Garden, and even won a Grammy Award (for whatever that's worth), so these critics darlings are no longer an underdog indie band. Which is fitting, for the Arcade Fire have always aimed much higher than that, with a soaring, majestic sound that was meant to be played in sold out arenas. That said, this loosely based concept album about growing up in the suburbs is a bit more grounded and less grandiose than their prior two efforts, and there are times that I for one miss the band's more bombastic approach. Though ostensibly more straightforward and accessible, this album also took longer for me to appreciate it, perhaps because at 16 tracks and 64 minutes of music there's so much to sit through. I can't help but think that the album would've been better had three or four songs been trimmed, but the majority of what is here is still really good and often excellent. As per usual, Butler's lyrics are moving and thought provoking, but again as per usual it's the music that matters most, and this diverse album gets off to a strong start with the title track, with its Bowie-fied piano pop and catchy falsetto vocals. The tough and anthemic "Ready To Start" surges impressively and is as good example as any how this album is less chamber pop and more post-punk, while "Modern Man" is more subtle but is catchy and melodic. Other highlights include the rocking yet dreamy (i.e. shoegazer-y) "Empty Room," "City With No Children," with its singable harmonies and beautifully soaring melody, "Suburban War," a moody, moving, and dramatic entry that builds powerfully, "Month Of May," another propulsive can't stand still thriller, "We Used To Wait," another lovely low-key semi-ballad, and "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," which crosses Depeche Mode with Blondie. Actually, Régine Chassagne's vocals are winningly charming throughout the album, in fact I wish she sang more, but Win's more reserved vocals are likewise less of a love-it-or-hate-it proposition than previously (though given their album ratings obviously I fall more in the "love" camp anyway). Again, the album isn't perfect, as there are a few lesser songs not mentioned, though I really like the two "Half Light" tracks as well, especially since they most remind me of the first two albums. On the whole I'd say that this "grower" album simply isn't as much fun to listen to as the first two albums, but again Funeral is simply not meant to be topped so it's hard to fault the band for twice failing to reach such a lofty benchmark. Despite its flaws, like the less obviously flawed Neon Bible, The Suburbs is simply another terrific album from a terrific band, it's only disappointing in that it really could've been a masterpiece had the band better edited their material.
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