Friday, 23 May 2008

Top 100 Albums - #37: Funeral (2004)

Arcade Fire's first of two entries comes in the shape of their debut album, Funeral.
The origin of Arcade Fire can be traced back to 1995, when 15-year-old Win Butler formed a band with classmates Josh Deu and Tim Kile while at the Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire. Butler went on to study creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, New York, and later moved to McGill University, Montreal. It was here that he met Régine Chassagne, a Canadian with Haitian roots, and they were married in 2003. Around 2003 the band's line-up solidified around Butler (guitar, vocals), his brother William (synthesiser, bass) and Chassagne (piano, xylophone). They were joined by Richard Reed Barry (double bass, guitar), Tim Kingsbury (guitar, bass), Sarah Neufeld (violin) and Howard Bilerman (drums). The band released a self-titled EP in mid-2003, originally only sold at gigs but since remastered and re-released. Taking their name from a fire in the Exeter arcade, the band spent the remainder of 2003 and early 2004 recording their debut album for Merge Records.

This critically-acclaimed album kicks off with the first of four 'Neighbourhood' tracks. 'Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)' kicks off with some tragically struck piano and mournful guitars. Butler's voice may come across as weak and unintelligible to those unfamiliar either with the band or with the genre of alternative rock, but bear with it, because in the higher registers it begins to come into its own. The guitars become more savage as the song wears on, counterpointed by the twinkling keyboards and the smash of the half-open hi-hat. It's a good start, subtly imposing it self upon your consciousness.

'Neighbourhood #2 (Laïka)' begins with one of the most memorable drum beats of recent years. The floor tom and snare pattern ricochets through the mix as the accordion intervenes. This is the first time we see both Butler and Chassagne on vocals, and the first impression is that it works, a good balance of Butler's strained yearning and Chassagne's laid-back reediness. The lyrics are not immediately clear, but eventually you come to realise their significance in what is essentially an allegory of the Russian space mission of 1957 which put Laika into space.

'Une Année Sans Lumière' literally translates as 'a year without light', and there's plenty of French to go around in this track. It's more down-tempo and guitar-oriented than the previous track, like a hybrid between indie (in its drums) and folk rock (guitar) - except in the final third where it suddenly turns a bit rockabilly. Butler's voice is weaker here, a fact that could either be taken as him being more vulnerable or being lazy. The jury is out.

The verdict on 'Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)' is clear, though. This is an articulate and immaculately executed song, which shows off the eclecticism and versatility of the whole seven-piece. Chassagne oscillates between kooky xylophones and stern keyboards while Butler thunders on and the violins and guitar create the creaking, agèd texture which suits the song to a tee. Then the jagged guitar riff kicks in at 2:16 and the classic becomes complete. The brooding atmosphere fits the subject matter(s); the most obvious meaning that can be attached can be the growing apathy among humanity in the face of duplicitous leaders: the power's out in the heart of man/ Take it from your heart, put it in your hand is a worthy and timely message for the iPod generation.

It is such a shame, then, that the final 'Neighbourhood' track is such a big let-down. 'Neighbourhood #4 (7 Kettles)' not only has the strangest title of all four such tracks, but it comes across as almost embarrassed of itself. Unlike #3, which rose to the occasion and filled the mix, this shies away with the screeching violins and even screechier acoustic guitar. The sound of a squeaky chord change is one of the most irritating and commonplace sounds in alternative rock. This comes across as an almost unashamed parody of Radiohead, circa The Bends (1995), and like most of Radiohead the lyrics take way too long to come out of their shell, even if they do emerge as quite good in the end.

Things get back on track with 'Crown Of Love', largely because the dark, foreboding textures have returned. The violins have been put back in tune to add to the mourning - as befits the album title - and the piano is deep, grand and sonorous. Butler is back on form as well, producing a great chorus:

If you still want me, please forgive me
The crown of love has fallen from me
If you still want me, please forgive me
Because the spark is not within me

Add in a perfectly executed tempo change in the last minute of the song and you begin to fall back in love with this band. Sadly, it is a love that they spurn so readily with their next two songs. While 'Wake Up' may thematically be a cornerstone of the album, as a song in its own right it comes across as rather impotent, filled with enough oh, oh, oh-oh-oh-ohs to serve as a bed on a dozen radio shows. It is has also, like so much recent indie, been mercilessly overplayed, and there is a fine line between a song being instantly recognisable and a song being boring. Finally, the music hall piano at the end really winds you up. 'Haiti' suffers from a different set of problems. The drums, especially the snare, is straight out of the 1980s, with its dodgy echoed production and oh-too-crisp sound. The keyboards are too weird to do justice to this subject matter (the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Devalier, a.k.a. Bébé Doc). And while Chassagne's vocals come across as great when read on paper, they are drowned out in the studio. What a shame.

Do not despair, though, because we now come to the best track on the album. This was the track, during their performance on Later... with Jools Holland,¹ that kick-started their career in Britain, and it's not hard to see why. If 'Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)' blasts through into your skull with its jagged guitars, 'Rebellion (Lies)' creeps very slowly up your spine until the sadness, fear and helplessness take control. The lingering keyboards act as a pulse over which Bilerman can open the taps a little bit. Butler's lyrics, about goverment propaganda are superb once again; the structure is so strict and formal, and yet not one of the lines comes across as compromised by rhyme or rhythm. The opening lines - Sleeping is giving in/ No matter what the time is - are among the best written this side of the millennium, and even the more trivial lines like Come and hide your lovers/ Underneath the covers scans as powerful poetry. There is no fault to this song whatsoever, it is an unassailable masterpiece.

The album winds slowly down with 'In The Backseat', again sung by Chassagne. And while it cannot hold a candle to its predecessor, it feels good. This time, the lyrics are given the space to breath, so you can (for the most part) get the message. It feels tight, poised and delicate, and even at the very top of her range there is not a hint of straining from Chassagne. Occasionally, the drums get too much and the mix gets too heavy, but otherwise it serves as a fitting finale.

Funeral's greatest irony is that it gave Arcade Fire the life and success they need when its themes and recordings are marred by death. The fear of government, the war on terror and the death of self-hope and confidence are perfectly encapsulated in these ten songs; and death within the families of so many of the band members adds further to the atmosphere of mourning. It is this unique combination of the personal and the political which makes this album such a rare joy. Most overtly political albums can seem very abstract, distant, and with little humanity in them which the listener can grab hold of. Likewise, many of the personal records in rock and elsewhere are so individual and introspective that they become absolutely impenetrable and no greater issues can be drawn from them. What Arcade Fire have done with Funeral is put the two poles together almost by accident, and created one of the finest pieces of musical social comment that we are ever likely to see.

3.90 out of 5

¹ Accessed on June 4 2008.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Top 100 Albums - #38: Send Away The Tigers (2007)

Welsh rockers Manic Street Preachers' only appearance on the chart is also their most recent effort, widely seen by critics as a return to form after the limp-wristed Lifeblood (2004).
After the mysterious disappearance of guitarist Richey Edwards in February 1995, the Manics regrouped and entered a period of critical and commercial success. Everything Must Go (1996) was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize, and was snapped up by the growing lad culture, who presumably missed the irony of the line We don't talk about love/ We only wanna get drunk in 'A Design For Life'. The follow-up, This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours (1998), contained the No.1 single 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next', written about the Spanish Civil War. The band recorded their second No. 1 with 'The Masses Against The Classes' in 2000. After this great crest of popularity, the band's work grew more inconsistent, with both Know Your Enemy (2001) and Lifeblood (2004) being written off as insipid and inconsistent. Following a two-year break to focus on solo projects - including James Dean Bradfield's The Great Western (2006) - the band returned to the studio to regroup.

We kick off with the title track, and it's instantly clear how far this band have come. Don't be put off by the 1970s organ opening, this a beautiful combination of their punk and metal roots dressed up in the dignity of alterative rock. The lyrics may not be especially compelling, especially well they've been coated in some annoying reverb. But the drums are straight and true, and the guitar is deep and menacing, especially at the end of the choruses. Most impressive of all, though, is Bradfield's voice. It remains as rich and politicised as the glory days of the band in the late-1990s.

With 'Underdogs', the mood temporarily switches to toned-down indie, with all its squashed snare work and near-whispered lyrics. But before this becomes even remotely irritating, the whole mix explodes in a ball of socialist fire. The chorus follows the punk formula of short, loud and simple; it's the formula that made them famous and it still works today, producing a cocktail of passion, angst and violence designed to blow your head to smithereens.

'Your Love Alone Is Not Enough' can came across as perturbing. The vocals are shared with Nina Persson, lead singer of Swedish pop group The Cardigans, hardly the most credible force in music today. And the song pattern is more pop than punk, with its frequent breaks and light refrains. You even have overworked lyrics, which reference both Pink Floyd - trade all your heroes in for ghosts - and the band's past glories - you stole the sun straight from my heart. But if you can overlook all of these, hard as it may seem, you have a good midsummery number. It might be a little forgettable, but the feel of the piece just about redeems it.

Enough being generous. 'Indian Summer' doesn't need to pass on feel, it's good in its own right. Bradfield isn't singing at his clearest, but the way in which this is put together feels tighter than before. The lead-in to the chorus showcases the talent of Sean Moore on drums, as he plays with both tightness and brio. The guitars sound good and everything is crisply produced, preventing it from dragging at all. 'The Second Great Depression' isn't all that bad either. If anything, its overtly political nature marks it out an improvement. This feels like an old-school Manics song, though not quite along the same lines as 'The Masses Against The Classes'. The slower tempo means that it is also nowhere near as good, but still packing a fair punch.

It is from this point onwards that we get into dodgier territory. 'Rendition' may be political in image, but the punch is slipping away, being replaced by everything noisy and obnoxious that makes punk such a difficult genre (something that was, perhaps, designed to be). This is too chaotic, too frenetic and without anything to tie their rage down. Like Green Day's most recent work, it comes across sound and fury, signifying very little than hadsn't already been said by better musicians and writers.

Having tossed up such a turkey, we somehow get 'Autumnsong'. And it sounds like a whole different band, as if in a single song the band had gone forward ten years in experience and talent. The opening chords are sublime, screechingly high and yet so easy on the ease. The lyrics are better too - wear your love like it is made of hate is one of the most skillfully crafted lines of 2007. This may be a summery song, in both title and subject, but it blows everything else of this category out of the water. It may be just as simple as 'Your Love Alone Is Not Enough', but here, without stupid extra vocals and with a lot more substance, you get your money's worth. This is the Manics at the best, taking the angst-ridden rawness of the band members' emotions and chanelling through the music to create something which never drags or rushes, never bores, and always thrills.

'I'm Just A Patsy' is political - the title comes from Lee Harvey Oswald - and it may sounds like a riot. But again the punch, the climax never comes. Listening to this song is a bit like driving an Aston Martin V8 Vantage - it sounds amazing, it looks good, but when you put your foot down and demand speed, it never really comes, and you are left ever so slightly empty, and out of pocket. It's a good thing, then, that 'Imperial Bodybags' is a real belter. This is the first track on the album on which the political content properly works. The reason is simple: it's more subtle, tinged with suggestion and irony amid the metallic rhythm guitar and dark thump of the bass. The chorus is reminiscent of 'A Design For Life', and the result is that this album is completely back on track.

The closer is a double whammy, with 'Winterlovers' and a cover of John Lennon's 'Working Class Hero'. The former, with its Na na naa footballers' opening, is a sure-fire anthem. The chorus is catchy, and although, like most of the album, it is written in 4/4, the result does not come across as even slightly tedious. To call it that would be to do it a disservice. 'Working Class Hero', which is in itself an good-to-average song, is given a kick up a backside to produce a punk anthem. To use the car analogy again, this is like taking a moped engine and fitting it with a supercharger and active exhuasts. It's a great way to finish.

Although it marks a return to the glory days for the Manic Street Preachers, in terms of critical acclaim and commercial success, it seems strange to compare it to any of their previous work. Not because it is in any way a massive departure; to put it harshly, it could be described as a return to the formula which made them famous. Instead, this is the first Manics album of recent years in which they appear content in their position within the industry. This doesn't sound like a middle-aged rock album, but you get the sense that all talk of burning out and disappearing is gone, completely. The band are no longer kidding themselves that they are now an established and successful act, and they seem to be content with that. And with the quality of material they have produced here, let's hope that this continues to be the case for a long time to come.

3.90 out of 5

¹ 'Manic Street Preachers', Accessed on May 22 2008.