lauantai 19. maaliskuuta 2011

Funeral, Arcade Fire’s debut album, makes a strong case for being the most important indie album of the past decade. Not only did it win over an entire subculture, it also established an entire subgenre of indie music. Call Sufjan Stevens the forebear of the modern resurgence of baroque pop all you want, but Funeral came one year before Illinois (no one cared about Michigan until after the fact), and Funeral is a better album than either of Sufjan’s albums anyway. Arcade Fire created a wave of inspiration they surely never anticipated and raised expectations for further releases to unattainable heights, which is why Neon Bible probably seemed like a kick in the face to many of their eager, supposedly loyal fans. Despite general commercial and critical acclaim (or perhaps because of it), the music blogosphere, much larger and feistier than Arcade Fire may have remembered it in 2004, backlashed. The community that Funeral united gathered once again, picked up pitchforks (pun intended) and charged. The Suburbs is, essentially, frontman Win Butler’s defense mechanism.

On The Suburbs, Butler’s lyrical attacks on his deserters are direct bludgeons, best summarized in the verses of “Rococo”, where by verse he breaks down the progression of Arcade Fire’s fanbase. First, Butler insults their intelligence for even enjoying Funeral: “Let’s go downtown and talk to the modern kids/They will eat right out of your hand/Using big words that they don’t understand.” Second, he bemoans their belittling tactics after Neon Bible: “They build it up just to burn it back down/The wind is blowing the ashes all around/Oh my dear God what is that horrible song?” Finally, he attempts to show these hipster bastards what they really are, which is essentially what The Suburbs does: “They seem wild but they are so tame/They're moving towards you with their colors all the same/They want to own you but they don't know what game they're playing.” In the end, Butler should come off as the proverbial cranky old man screaming at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn. But god damn, The Suburbs is a prize-winning, finely tuned botanical garden, and Butler has every right to say whatever he pleases to his trespassers.

The music on The Suburbs is as direct and straightforward as Butler’s lyrics. While Neon Bible also employed this style of songwriting, The Suburbs feels matured and spacious in all the places where Neon Bible seemed tepid and tentative. “Empty Room” begins like the opening of an exciting overture, only to expand into an upbeat rock song driven not only by a pulsating backbeat but also by rapid violin arpeggios, kept in check by Butler and wife Régine Chassagne’s airy, inspired duet. Similarly, while the standard song structure and harmonic cadences keep the song grounded, the sound of Arcade Fire firing on all cylinders in this environment bridges the gaping hole between Funeral and Neon Bible. B-side of the title track single, “Month of May”, keeps the song stripped down to a standard rock song instead of embellishing the standard structures with symphonic stylings. To complement the musical style, Butler and Chassagne trade their beautifully harmonized vocals for angular shouts. This attention to atmospheric detail, matched with the lyrical content, makes The Suburbs a well-executed, straightforward rock album instead of a banal sellout.

Still, the album contains nuances inside its simple structure. “Modern Man” subtly alternates between phrases of nine and phrases of eight in its verses, enough to make the over-analytical music critic squee with delight. The alternation is just one example of the intricate phrasing structures Arcade Fire puts into many of their songs, including “We Used to Wait” and “Suburban War”, that keep the engaged listener on his or her toes and playfully avoid boring songwriting. Equally deft, Butler’s vocal melodies weave through these rhythmic eccentricities easily, giving the songs the air of control so desperately needed for a successful pop song (for the uncomfortable flipside, see Maya).

Where the album falters is in its bloated weight. The sixty-four minute album is a bit much, and one has to wonder whether “Wasted Hours” might have served better on their inevitable B-sides collection, or if the build from “Half Light I” into its second section could have been condensed and still had the same resplendent effect. Still, the best moments of the album--“Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, “Suburban War”, “Empty Room”--demonstrate that Arcade Fire still have all the magic encapsulated so perfectly in Funeral, and they may just enchant the entire indie music world once more. If only more people would get off Win Butler's lawn.

torstai 17. maaliskuuta 2011

My review of Radiohead's new album the King of Limbs

My Radiohead experience went like this: I found them in high school, listened to OK Computer and was thrilled by the theatrical possibility of the music. What I mean is that Radiohead conjure atmospheres so perfectly, feels so impossible to relate to but beautiful to imagine, that they could take me anywhere. There was Kid A’s apocalyptic landscape (the art in its sleeve as captivating as the album itself) followed by Hail To The Thief’s quasi-political message and open, green spaces (natural yet sinister, not dissimilar to the “There, There” video), both images that brought their albums' significance outside of the music within, giving Radiohead a lofty mystique as legends of Godspeed You! Black Emperor proportions.

But The King Of Limbs is the product of a different beast. This record is immediate, though not immediate in the “catchy” sense. Rather, Radiohead are not far away anymore. They’re here, intimately with us, in our ears, urging us to dance, urging us to forget we are hearing a Radiohead record. They have adopted the producing taglines of Flying Lotus and Burial and disowned their own propensity for the grandiose, the result being that the weirdest thing about The King of Limbs is that it sounds like it was made by relatable human beings. This is, I suppose, ironic considering the clearly more electronic style Radiohead adopted for King of Limbs, but what they’ve done is bring Yorke to Earth. Here, he still sounds sinister, but in a far subtler way. It sort of makes him more terrifying. Choice lyrics, such as “Morning Mr. Magpie’s” ”you’ve got some nerve” and the increasingly famous last lyric of “Separator” are given weight, but we mostly hear Yorke’s glitchy mumble ruminate on an array of esoteric topics. This isn’t anything new; Yorke’s song subjects and lyrics are notoriously impenetrable. Here though, songs don’t make the actual content of the lyrics the focus, but rather the beat. The voice is either masked by trademark Radiohead reverb or chopped to make songs like “Feral,” one of Radiohead’s strongest tracks and one that entirely lacks precedent, a dubstep creeper with more ties to Untrue than “Idioteque.”

And like “Feral,” King of Limbs feels remarkably brand new. Unlike other Radiohead albums, King of Limbs has an unrelenting groove, an exploration of the electronics only touched upon by “The Gloaming” and “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors.” It furiously bobs its head as it seizes and twitches. The bizarre yet hysterical vibe of the “Lotus Flower” video is intentional. This record is meant to be heard not on vinyl but in headphones so that its audience can lose itself as Yorke does in his cute little bowler hat. But something else that the “Lotus Flower” video does in partnership with King of Limbs’ remarkable lack of pre-release fervor (at least compared to In Rainbows’ inescapable buzz) is reveal the men behind Radiohead’s self-erected curtain. They’re not without a sense of humor, which isn’t me saying King Of Limbs is filled with wry wit, but is me saying that Radiohead are consciously taking their reputation as a band of massive importance out of the equation. An impossible task, no doubt, as Radiohead are still Radiohead for the press and for the fans, but an admirable one to undertake. King of Limbs presents a way of listening to Radiohead, the angle simply being that there isn’t one, which is the most refreshing thing about it.

So yes, on King of Limbs, we lose the mystique of Radiohead, and for once, they are ours, not a band whose impenetrability makes them like something above us. The mirage is gone, the hype of a monolith called Radiohead brought down so that for once, their songs stand on their own, outside of contextual dialogue or mysteries of “what type of setting did Jonny use on this track?” or “what does Thom mean when he says he has a disease that plagued a bunch of rabbits?” And on their own, the songs stand beautifully. Gun to my head, I would make the case that King of Limbs’ closest cousin is Amnesiac because of its intimacy and because it’s the one record from Radiohead’s discography that has maintained any sort of anonymity. That record aged beautifully, a puzzle on first listen that revealed itself a classic of the so-called “Radiohead Standard” with patience. I could see King Of Limbs following suit simply because it’s so impossible to immediately contextualize in Radiohead lore, which is kind of fantastic; I wouldn’t be surprised if history ends up adopting this record and ultimately cherishing it. Because on King of Limbs, Radiohead recognize the power of obscurity in 2011 while they one-up the slew of producers with aspirations of blending soulful, pretty songs with electronic whateveryouwill-step (all due respect to James Blake and How to Dress Well).

Admittedly, I’m speculating wildly here, but hasn’t that always been an easy thing to do with Radiohead? The band is still important and we’re still destined to care because the music they make is still vital. Some will definitely say we need the image, we need the hype that made Radiohead’s every move monumental and every song an epic, and they’ll phrase this displeasure with accusatory words like “uninspired” or “flat.” But King of Limbs is anything but those things. Right now I’m pretty content with digging The King of Limbs as I’d dig any new record: enjoying the personality that comes from the record itself and not the name behind it. And guess what? Radiohead makes good music. As if you had any doubt.

This is one of the best videos I have ever seen. Alternative title: "Everything in its right place". :D