Friday, July 30, 2010

Arcade Fire- The Suburbs

Before we begin, a quick preface: my name is Ben and I’m going to be hopefully contributing to this blog on a fairly regular basis, especially in terms of reviews.

The Arcade Fire- The Suburbs

So it’s come to this, the most impossible-to-review album of the year (unless, of course, Radiohead follows up on rumor and releases something, but that has yet to be seen). Arcade Fire put themselves in a difficult place after starting their career with one of the landmark albums of the decade, a work that garnered massive critical and popular acceptance. Of course, as with any band that comes out with something of Funeral’s stature, backlash is inevitable, and the band did little to temper that backlash with their second album, Neon Bible, a decent if incredibly bloated work trading on awkwardly used Springsteen-isms, only occasionally reaching the highs of power and poignancy that so defined Funeral. So, here, another three years later, they’ve released The Suburbs, and, inevitably, we must attempt to consider it in multiple ways.

The problem with a band like Arcade Fire, one that seems fully formed from the second they come into popular view, one that releases a bona fide classic as its first major release, is that from then on, considering their work will become a constant tug of war. On one hand, we have to try and consider their albums as objectively as possible, as products, statements of their own. On the other hand though, it is impossible to ever fully separate Arcade Fire from Funeral. It’s their definitive work, and will be, probably for their entire career unless they can pull a Radiohead and drop an album so innovative and advanced as to make Funeral sound like a mere stepping stone.

How then, is the album? Well, in the objective-rating sense, pretty fucking good. Better than that, even, a potential album of the year contender, guaranteed a major presence on end of the year lists ranging from the glossiest of magazines to the depth of the blogosphere. There are numerous standout tracks, ranging from “City With No Children,” a stronger invocation of classic Springsteen tropes than anything on Neon Bible, to the ambling, cosmic Americana inflected “Wasted Hours.” “Month of May” and “Ready to Start” are propulsive, thrilling rockers, “Deep Blue” perfectly encapsulates everything appealing about their apocalyptic tendencies, and “Half Light II” instills a new wave sensibility that balances magnificently with the Neil Young-esque guitar stomp. There are some weak spots, as, without the immensely diverse and unusual instrumental decisions found on Funeral and remaining as one of the stronger aspects of Neon Bible, a lot of the tracks blur together as almost interchangeable guitar and keyboard driven indie rock anthems, albeit uniformly strong ones. When they stretch out, however, and add the instrumental flourishes that so distinguished their debut, the results are unsurprisingly tremendous.

The next question, and perhaps the more important one, is how does it stack up? And, perhaps inevitably, the answer is, “adequately.” The peaks in tracks like “Tunnels,” “Power Out,” and “Rebellion (Lies)” are approached, but never equaled by “We Used to Wait,” “Suburban War,” and the like. The general absence of the ornate instrumentation so prevalent in the past can put an uncomfortable amount of light on Win Butler’s lyrics, which, when surrounded by grandiosity always sounded appropriate, but, in certain contexts here can sometimes seem alternately forced and embarrassingly elementary. The Suburbs, while certainly personal and sincere, doesn’t come close to the grand, tortured emotional statement that was Funeral. And, of course, it couldn’t. Funeral was the product of a very specific set of circumstances, circumstances that can’t be duplicated on a regular basis. It would be absolutely unreasonable to expect Arcade Fire’s later works to match it. But that’s the trouble of starting your career with a classic. So, while “Sprawl I (Flatland)” could have been the crowning achievement of a lesser band and “The Suburbs” suite in many hands would have seemed a pinnacle of ambition, The Suburbs will forever lay in the shadow of the now near-mythical classic that preceded it.

To avoid ending this on a down note though, one song deserves special recognition, a track that resides proudly in the canon of untouchably great Arcade Fire songs, up there with the gothic grander of “Intervention,” the exhilaration of “No Cars Go,” and, admittedly the majority of Funeral. This is “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” It is thoroughly unlike everything else the Arcade Fire have done to this point, but thoroughly recognizable as nothing else. An immense, almost electro-pop track, clearly indebted to the new wave acts claimed by Arcade Fire as influences this time around, but thrillingly vibrant and vital, sung by Regine Chassagne. This track reminds us that while Arcade Fire may be perpetually trapped in a quixotic attempt to define themselves outside of a monolithic work, they remain capable of astonishing audiences in ways that could never be expected.


Friday, July 23, 2010

Concert Review: Kings of Leon @ Fiddler's Green Amphitheater, 7/20/2010

Thanks to my lovely girlfriend Meg, I had the chance to see Kings of Leon this week at Fiddler's Green (or Comfort Dental Amphitheater, as it will heretofore not be called). I've been relatively familiar with Kings of Leon for a while now, but I'd never gotten into their music much past the singles from their last two albums, so I was looking forward to hearing their music in a different setting than contemporary radio.

I've always felt that Kings of Leon are one of the more unique rock bands to gain mainstream success in the last few years. Their 2007 effort, "Because of the Times," gained considerable success overseas, while the more recent "Only by the Night" (2008) employed a more mainstream rock sound that granted them larger recognition in the States. Some longtime fans found this move somewhat alienating, seeing the more accessible approach as a kind of sellout for radio play. Granted, "Only by the Night" did and does receive a great deal of radio time, but this has never bothered me much. It's not a sin for a band to seek a wider audience as long as the material is still strong, which I felt it more or less was.

That said, I've consistently been bothered by KoL's album sound. Across the board, the band's albums suffer from poor mixes that make the music feel much weaker than it should. In studio, KoL seems more or less content to undercut their guitars in favor of upmixed drum tracks and cranked vocals. Unfortunately, this trend really doesn't suit the group's talents. Lead singer Caleb Followill tends to put a great deal of energy into his vocals, and while he's certainly competent, his tendency to miss notes is somewhat amplified by loud volumes.

I was pleased, however, to discover that these issues are virtually nonexistent on the live stage. The band opened Tuesday's show with the quasi-industrial chugger "Crawl," which happens to be one of my personal favorites of theirs. I was instantly surprised and pleased by the aggressiveness and power with which the band played. Drummer Nathan Followill (they're all Followills, three brothers and a cousin) competently lead the group around most of the songs, as he does on album, but more noticeable was the force behind guitarist Matthew Followill's riffs. These simply blasted from the first moment, making an instant and substantial improvement on a good repertoire that simply begs to be performed live.

From here, Kings of Leon moved into a diverse selection of their career's work, sampling from their earliest albums, "Youth & Young Manhood" and "Aha Shake Heartbreak." Songs like "Slow Night, So Long" and "Immortals" provided a glimpse into territory that was, for me, entirely unknown. I was impressed by these early entries, as much by their actual quality as by the band's decision to fill a good portion of their setlist with older material. From there, the band played their obligatory hits "Sex on Fire" and "Notion" to great effect, and to the great pleasure of the night's enthusiastic crowd. After a short setbreak, KoL played mega-hit "Use Somebody" before closing with the excellent "Black Thumbnail," which served as an powerful bookend to an extremely entertaining night.

While their new work differs from their earlier material, their entire catalogue is bound together by its visceral, gut-level impact. To enjoy Kings of Leon, one must try not to think too much; their music hits low and fast, with all the frenetic energy befitting a great rock show. While each member contributed a great deal of intensity, Caleb Followill provided a passionate focal point for the entire experience. He sings with a reckless abandon that few modern singers dare to approach, boosted by the increased instrumental power that the band demonstrated all night. The man simply bellows every line, and rock fans should be more than willing to listen.