Wednesday, December 19, 2007

CD Review No 8 - Arcade Fire

After reading a few reviews, fulsome in their praise, I took a gamble and bought 'Funeral' by Arcade Fire. Whilst I can certainly hear much that shows promise and flair, I can't quite make the music match up with the ecstatic ravings of fans and journalists. On first hearing I really was puzzled, there wasn't sufficient, audible at least, to warrant the grand claims, unless I was suffering from tinnitus or something. So far as I'm aware, excessive listening to Deep Purple at high volume in my youth, hasn't made me musically deaf. Yet something is missing from Arcade Fire, that essential x-factor which would delight your ears and uplift your heart, and make them a truly exciting band to stumble across. 'Funeral' is good, and a cut above many rock bands, who ,even on their third attempt, fail to lay the golden egg - the definitive rock album of their generation. Like most first albums it is riddled with a random scattering of bullet holes that its influences seep out of. Popping up to say 'hello, remember me ?' are moments of Talking Heads, ELO ,The Cure, a bit of U2 (seemingly obligatory these days) and an esoteric touch of Split Enz (which they probably weren't even aware of).

Apart from the usual trio of drums, guitar and bass, they assemble an impressive battery of instruments not traditionally associated with rock music, such as accordions, xylophones, recorders, plus heavy amounts of violins and horns. There must be enough to make up two five-a- side football teams when they play live. Managing this range of musical sounds, requires great orchestration and production expertise. Unfortunately, it is mainly the production which lets the band down, frequently muddying the dynamics. Musical motifs are often to be found buried deep within their mishandling of a Phil Spector like 'wall of sound.' The tempos build up and reach the grand strut of a crescendo repeatedly. There fondness for this device, often results in hysterically overstretched vocals struggling to be heard over the propulsive drama going on underneath. As the vocalist has not the vocal strength of character to pull this off, the impression created is not of a magnificent musical vista, but of something rather more strained and indistinct. Arcade Fire, can misfire and hit the bulls eye within the same song, almost in spite of themselves. They are reputedly better live, which I could well imagine to be true.

Perhaps I am getting a bit carried away with my own rhetoric and criticism here. I'm in danger of presenting an entirely dismissive review, simply by over emphasising their more obvious flaws. There are more than a few marvellous moments when they truly sparkle, such as on 'Neighbourhood 1 (Tunnels)' & 'Crown of Love' ,moments when, in spite of my initial misgivings, I really do like them. The excessive adulation really has done them a disservice. They are a significant band, whose individuality and eccentricities are certainly addictive. I find myself listening to them frequently, with tunes rattling around in the attic of my consciousness unexpectedly. So they can't be all bad, which, of course they aren't. It's just they have not, in my book achieved a coherent musical vision yet. Though a truly great band is buried in there somewhere. To unearth it you'd have to do some pretty serious pruning. First, you'd have to improve the production, get in some top notch guy, who knows how to heighten and bring out the self-evident dynamics of their arrangements. Second, I'm not entirely won over by the vocal quality and style of Win Butler, their lead vocalist. His thin, weary sounding voice is too often painfully reminiscent of Robert Smith, only with with a touch of laryngitis. Time after time the undoubted splendour of a song is tempered by having his forced screeching flying across it, like aircraft noise. In short, he's not a great singer, and maybe that significant something which will permanently impede their undoubted promise.

I would be interested to hear 'Neon Bible', their second album, just to monitor progress on how they refine and clarify their sound. It maybe that they never get there, and 'Funeral' will become something commonly found in popular music - an album of unfulfilled potential. Whether Arcade Fire will end up having the substance of greatness is definitely an open question, as yet.

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