Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Top 100 Albums - #98: Live EP (2005)

The first of four live albums on the list, Live EP was recorded on September 9th 2005, on the UK/US TV special Fashion Rocks. Arcade Fire, riding the crest of new-found fame, were joined by a recuperating David Bowie to perform three songs for a live (and enthusiastic) audience.

By late 2005 Arcade Fire were becoming massively successful in North America and Europe. Their debut album Funeral (2004) - which appears later on in the chart - was released to critical acclaim and commercial success, prompting their record label to re-release their minimalist self-titled EP (2003). After appearing on Later... with Jools Holland in May 2005 they broke into Europe and became the rock band of choice for students. At the same time, David Bowie was taking time off, recuperating from heart surgery after feeling chest pains in 2004 during the Reality tour in Germany. Just as he would later do with David Gilmour in the On An Island tour of 2006, Bowie in this period confined himself to guest appearances.

The first sound you hear on the EP (in this case 'record' is a little stretched) is Régine Chassangne, the keyboard and xylophone players and wife of vocalist Win Butler, whom she married during the recording of Funeral. She introduces their guest with the words: 'He sits the pace, and we just try to keep up. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage our good friend, Davie Bowie.' Cue piano and rapturous applause. This, I would hedge a bet, is partly because of the obvious prestige of Bowie, but is suspect is also a sign of support for the band. It was after all Bowie who spotted the Montreal seven-piece on tours and effectively got them a record deal, so this seemed the ideal way to pay him back.

The first track is 'Life On Mars?', Bowie's classic from Hunky Dory (1971) which helped to both break him into glam rock and lay the foundations for Ziggy Stardust. Like the original, the sole instrument is the piano (violins feature later on the '71 version), and as such it could easily pass off a track from an ordinary Bowie tour. Bowie's voice is very different; even singing in the same genre or timbre as the original, it has aged a little and is a little deeper, but on the other hand it is not wearisome, at least not enough to seem passé. Bowie can still hold the long notes and the audience laps it up.

After the audience is faded out, we rejoin the gig with Arcade Fire performing 'Wake Up', a track made famous as it was played before the start of every U2 gig on the Vertigo tour of 2005-07. Having said that, I have always been rather underwhelmed by this song, and for all the energy of an Arcade Fire concert this recording doesn't do anything to change this, both because the recording is too polished and produced to capture the raw energy and because the song is clunky. Even if the lyrics are good - as they all are on Funeral, but more on that later - Bowie doesn't do the song complete justice, and I am not the biggest fan of Butler's voice live. Since his singing voice is weaker and even 'thuggish' (as many indie singers are - case in point Hard-Fi's Richard Archer) he is more suited to the studio than the stage. That doesn't compromise the live set to any great degree, but it can get on your nerves.

Finally comes 'Five Years', the short yet sprawling track opener of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1972). Bowie holds his own - as he has always done - and with only light guitar and soft drums to accompany him at first, he rambles through the unusual lyrics. Butler joins him on the chorus and it sounds good; and as if by magic, the rest of the band slowly joins in until, at the very end of the album, the screeching violins fade out on a very good show.

This live album has a very polished feel, to the point at which it feels overproduced and tweaked in places. The middle track is the weakest, for the reasons discussed before. This is an indie rock record, and as such comparison with albums like Live At Leeds (1970) and Frampton Comes Alive! (1976) would be unfair; nevertheless, being a live record, even not on the same scale, it will be group with these (and every other live album conceivable) almost be default. While this is a good occassional listener, it is designed a little for cultists - if you're a casual fan of either Bowie or Arcade Fire and want to look further, this is not the place to start.

3.67 out of 5

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