Arcade Fire – “Everything Now”

(Photo Credit: Spin)Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Everything Now,” “Creature Comfort”

I recently read an article that called Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion (Lies)” one of the best rock songs of this century so far, and I don’t doubt this for a second. Arcade Fire’s perfect debut album “Funeral” helped energize the brewing indie revolution by adding a full, baroque sound. While bands like Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs beat them by a few years, they were championing a much more straightforward, guitar-driven approach. Unfortunately, that revolution came to a halt, and many of the genre’s best broke up or should’ve broken up. Arcade Fire were an exception until this point, finding ways to combine some current form of music zeitgeist with the general bleakness and storytelling of their indie background.

Unfortunately for Arcade Fire, they’ve always been a conceptual band, and each of their albums exists (very intentionally) in different spaces. Their first album is a bleak baroque tale of a town where only kids survive a snowfall so bad that it covers houses. “Neon Bible” is a Springsteen-tinged ode to America’s Bible belt. “Reflektor” is a sad dance party, accentuated by James Murphy and David Bowie (!). None of these are concept albums – just albums centered a relative narrative idea. Their idea for “Everything Now” (a tongue-in-cheek title, given the band’s patience in between releases), is one of a band that has hit a huge stature and is afraid of disappointing. This isn’t the first time a band has done this – Queens of the Stone Age attempted a similar idea on their last album “…Like Clockwork.” Foxygen did a similar thing on “Star Power.” It’s just that this idea….isn’t a very good one. There are many different routes that the band could take, from deep introspection on how fame changed their personal lives, or an intentionally messy album that doesn’t do any narrative justice. But they chose the option of being the band that disappoints with a boring album.

The worst part about this is that it doesn’t necessarily feel like a conscious change. “Everything Now,” produced partially by Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter (along others), feels like a natural progression to “Reflektor.” The album feels like the characters on that album have grown up more and made peace with their surroundings. So while the music of this album might feel intentionally lackadaisical, some of the other elements feel unintentionally so. Front and center is Win Butler’s vocals. The man has historically gelled into whatever the song needs. As I write this, “Modern Man” is playing. Butler’s voice in this is timid and reserved, especially compared to the high-volume of “Rebellion (Lies)” or the shout-y section of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out).” On this album, though, Butler mostly meanders through his lyrics like he doesn’t even care that he wrote them.

And maybe he doesn’t – because on the whole the lyrics are pretty terrible. They sing repeatedly about the somewhat vague concepts of ‘infinite content’ and ‘everything now’ (which make up 5 of the 13 track titles), loose terms about the availability of music on the internet. Lyrically, the band is trying to hold themselves to an impossibly high standard, knowing all of their competition in the world. They’re throwing in a satirical white flag. So to hear such limp lyrics throughout is disappointing in both concept and reality. “Infinite Content” and “Infinite_Content” share the same lyrics, and they shouldn’t, because they’re all centered on a corny line. “Chemistry,” though one of the stronger tracks, also has corny as hell lyrics. So does “Signs of Life,” a song where Butler at one point literally raps the days of the week (yikes!).

This album is by no means a complete waste. The title track is dance-pop gold (though, as with “Reflektor,” they make the mistake of putting the best track early and releasing it as the first single). “Put Your Money On Me” takes a long time to build, but once it does it hits a climax more complex than the other tracks. Régine Chassagne has her moment on “Creature Comfort,” easily out-singing her husband. “Chemistry,” too, is pleasant – though it would be more pleasant if it was a different artist. There are undercurrents of new wave on this album, especially on “Chemistry” and “Signs of Life.” Butler’s rapping on the latter is reminiscent of Deborah Harry’s ‘rap’ verse on “Rapture,” although Harry’s was much more of a ‘time and place’ thing. The title track, as dance-pop as it is, also feels a little ripped from ’78.

But elsewhere, the album is just a big dud. Chassagne’s spotlight moment on this album comes on “Electric Blue,” a song so painfully dull that it took me two tries to listen to. “We Don’t Deserve Love” sets itself as the standout, and while it does have some of the album’s better lyrics, it’s a long dud that never does anything to grab the listener. Some of the album’s best points come in the intro/outro/interludes, which is telling. The punk blast that is “Infinite Content” is on par with their chaotic early days, but it’s only a fleeting memory, one that gets taken over by an immediate country-reworking of the same song.

It’s also telling that I can’t pick a pinpoint critique to go on about. Arcade Fire are one of my favorite bands (I mean this), but this album is just a burned-out fuse top to bottom. There is no energy, corny lyrics, and tepid vocals. Nothing that Arcade Fire is known for is done on display here, it’s just a dull dance-pop album start to finish. The band – which still has more members than most bands – rarely alters between a few chords throughout the album. There just doesn’t seem to be anything inspired at all here, and if it’s all part of the image of the album, then it is not successful. Either way, it’s a misfire. This album won’t damage the love that I have for the band, because their music has helped me in ways that I can never explain. But it’s also completely forgettable from start to finish. The fact that the last track resets back into the first one is a kind of ironic poison, that is has to live in its own prison of mediocrity. This isn’t a water putting out the Arcade Fire, but it is a rekindling. This album will never stand up to the ones that came before it; to those who still derive a lot of pleasure from it, the more power to you. I’m seeing them in September and I hope these tracks translate better live. But for now, we’re left with a big pile of nothing.

-By Andrew McNally

Will Butler – “Policy”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Take My Side” “What I Want”

The idea of a “frontman” is one that dominated classic rock – everyone remembers Freddie Mercury, some people know Brian May’s name, not many people know Roger Taylor and John Deacon. But it’s a status that’s become outdated in the indie age, with alternative bands working more as units rather than musicians waiting for their chance to show off. Arcade Fire hasn’t melded with this change in pace. When a casual person thinks of Arcade Fire, they think of the frontcouple – Win Butler and Regine Chassagne. This is probably because Arcade Fire is huge, there’s six members (seven until recently), and everyone plays multiple instruments. So the band has an indie collective feel, like Broken Social Scene or the Polyphronic Spree. But they’re not, they’ve had a pretty core line-up since Funeral. What this has led to, in succession, is the other members besides Win and Regine trying to make their voices heard. Recently departed violinist Sarah Neufeld released a solo album in 2013, followed closely by multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry. Now, Win’s brother is having his say. Will Butler, who is officially credited with playing “synthesizer, bass, backing vocals, guitar, percussion, sitar, panpipes, trombone, omnichord, glockenspiel, concertina, double bass, clarinet, gadulka and the musical saw” throughout his time in Arcade Fire, has released his first solo album.

As one of Fire’s two remaining crazy members (along with Parry), what we get from “Policy” is Butler’s contributions to Arcade Fire – one slice of the puzzle extracted, and propelled forward until it becomes its own being. “Policy” is often poppier, faster and more lively than Arcade Fire’s music. At 27 minutes, it’s a brisk outing, one that highlights the album’s quickened, but not unruly pace. A majority of the eight tracks are simple guitar-based indie, akin to the solo work of Brendan Benson. It’s a type of indie that is usually successful just because it never has to ask for any sort of originality to work. But “Policy” does still have some original things going on around it. On what’s maybe the album’s best track, “What I Want,” Butler sings wild lyrics around a vocal rhythm that keeps crescendo-ing. Remove the sweet indie sound the goofy lyrics, and it’s a noise-rock template.

“Policy” demands no comparison to Arcade Fire, in either its size or its scope, but it’s hard not to make comparisons. Will does, at times, sound like his brother. And occasionally the rhythms either cool down enough to resemble the band, or they build enough complexity to sound denser. But the album’s biggest difference might be in the lyrics. Butler’s lyrics aren’t at all similar to Arcade Fire’s cold, emotional odes. They wouldn’t fit on an album that leans more to enjoyable than painful. Instead Butler sings lines like “If I could fly / I’d beat the shit out of some birds” on opener “Take my Side,” and on “What I Want,” singing “I know a great recipe for pony macaroni.”

The album’s two outliers are the synth-y and sax-y second track, “Anna,” which almost feels like a red herring. It acts like it’s going to set a tone for the rest of the album, but Butler instead treats it like a song he’s doing for himself to get it out of the way. The biggest outlier is “Sing To Me,” a piano ballad. It’s an effective, low-key piece, and it’s got a strong, haunting tone to it, but it doesn’t really fit on “Policy.” The audience is never really set up for a ballad so soon – even as the penultimate track, it still comes after only 21 minutes.

Still, there are no bad moments on “Policy,” and even though it isn’t entirely effective as an original work and Butler doesn’t quite possess the independent power of being a solo musician, it’s a fun listen throughout. It takes a stance alongside but completely separate from Arcade Fire, and helps to signify Butler’s important position in the group.

If you like this, try: Brendan Benson’s 2012 album “What Kind of World.”

-By Andrew McNally

Arcade Fire – “Reflektor”

(Photo Credit: basedonnothing.net)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Here Comes the Night” “Normal Man”

*I should clear the air about something first – Arcade Fire is my favorite band. Their music speaks more to me than almost all of the other hundreds of bands I like combined. Sorry if that’s upsetting, I know how pretentious they can be, but they could release an album of someone mowing their lawn and I’d love it. I tried not to fanboy too much in the review, I hope I did okay*

This is the divisive record. “Reflektor” is the Arcade Fire record that will separate the die-hards, the casual fans and the naysayers into their respective parties. Some longtime indie lovers are uncomfortable by Arcade Fire’s commercial success, and fans of popular music are never sure what to make of the group’s theatrical performances. But those unsure will either embrace “Reflektor,” or find it too pretentious, too overblown to be what it is. Thankfully, Arcade Fire always know when to draw the line, and we’ve received a massive, long album that covers all ground and only rarely feels unwelcome.

Throughout their first three albums, Arcade Fire kept getting related to David Bowie, although there was never any clear reason why. Lyrically and vocally, Win Butler kinda resembled him, but the very folksy album “The Suburbs” disrupted most of those comparisons. “Reflektor,” though, opens up why the connections were made in the first place – they are a multi-faceted band who approach tough topics with grace, and who aren’t afraid to get very soft, very loud, very spacey or very grounded in acoustic. “Reflektor,” produced largely by electronic demi-god James Murphy, might be the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ era for the band, down to giving Bowie himself a cameo line in the title track. It’s space-age, much more electronic than anything before. The band’s violinist, Sarah Neufeld, doesn’t even show up on the album and wasn’t used in promos. It feels science fiction-y at times, with epic lyrics and lengthy, spacey songs.

“Reflektor,” despite being 13 songs, spans 85 minutes over 2 discs. So, Disc One – hail the rhythm section! Arcade Fire’s early live shows were so riotous that the members would have to wear helmets. Years later, they’re headlining arenas instead of destroying clubs, but this album finally shows that energy. Only “Neighborhood #3″ showed that energy over their first three albums, but “Here Comes the Night,” “Normal Person” and the intro to “Joan of Arc” show a band about to bring their music off the rails.

Disc Two is less intense, with six slower songs. Not every track is necessary, as they all build up as spacey ballads. The intro and outro serve different purposes, but tracks two through five all hover around the six minute mark and, although they’re all great on their own, the disc feels bloated with each one. “Porno” has some interesting music, but is lyrically a little, uh, limp. “Afterlife” is the stand-out, the prettiest and the most harmonizing. Final track “Supersymmetry” is another slow one that’s followed by a ‘secret’ instrumental outro, but one that’s more appreciated when you pretend it’s all one eleven-minute, slowly-fading finale.

The album’s one big fault is the overly subdued second disc, but there is also a distinct lack of Regine Chassagne. She doesn’t sing lead on any tracks, and two of her appearances are in French (again, an alienating album). With continuing themes of discord and reluctance, we’d expect to hear more from her but she only makes brief back-up appearances. Win, as usual, sounds strong but confused and his storytelling lyrics are consistently engaging.

“Reflektor” is an opus. Most bands, after winning a Best Album Grammy, could take a backseat (no pun intended) and tread into safety for a little while. Instead, Arcade Fire have made one of the most ambitious albums of the year, setting out to prove a lot more than even their own previous works. It’s huge, it’s serious, it’s intense, it’s kind of fun and it certainly isn’t perfect – but it cements them as one of the leaders in alternative, and it serves to further polarize fans and critics.

If you like this, try: Some sort of homemade playlist of the Flaming Lips, LCD Soundsystem, the Joy Formidable and Interpol. Preferably all playing at once.

-By Andrew McNally

Sarah Neufeld – “Hero Brother”

(Photo Credit: CST Records)

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Hero Brother,” “Sprinter Fire”

It’s been three long years since Sarah Neufeld’s primary band has released an album, so the sporadically-overworked violinist of Arcade Fire decided to work solo. The result is a relaxed-sounding album that falls nicely in between traditional performance classical and indie rock experimentation. The album barely has any other sounds than Neufeld’s violin, accompanied only by keyboards and occasional vocal rhythms.

Neufeld never overworks herself like she does on some Arcade Fire tracks, instead taking a minimalistic approach to her songs. Nearly every song is just Neufeld with some slight music in the background, and in some moments everything drops out altogether. Her playing is often slower but experimental, finding just the right moment for a violin shriek or a repeated sequence that would sound very out of place in a traditional orchestra. There is a subdued element to the album, even if Neufeld’s playing doesn’t always sound like it.

I will say that I am not sure what the target audience for this release is. Arcade Fire die-hards like myself might enjoy it based on principle (go Sarah!), but it is not by any means an album for people just looking for indie rock. It is strictly instrumental and classical-inspired, resembling a school recital but on a grand scale. Fans of pre-Stravinsky classical music might not eat it up either, given its tendency not to shy away from rough rhythms. But it is a good listen, even if its audience is kind of a niche. Win Butler said he’d retire from music at 30, so if he actually holds true to that word, maybe we can get some more solo work from Sarah. “Hero Brother” is a solid instrumental album, with just enough experimentation to make it an entertaining, genre-blending work.

-By Andrew McNally