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 But it’s a status that’s become outdated in the indie age, with alternative bands working more as units rather than musicians waiting for their chance to show off.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

The National – “Trouble Will Find Me”

(Photo Credit: Rolling Stone Magazine)

(Photo Credit: Rolling Stone Magazine)

Grade: A

Key Tracks: “Sea of Love,” “Demons”

With a title like “Trouble Will Find Me” and two opening tracks called “I Should Live in Salt” and “Demons,” the National give the immediate impression that their sixth album will be more of the same introspective and self-demonizing alt-rock that has brought them this far. And in many ways, the album is a continuation. Singer Matt Berninger is 42 now, so this is no time to drop the cynicism and open up. The National have always relied on sad, relateable lyrics to drive their songs close to home. “Trouble Will Find Me” continues the gloom, but after all these years, Berninger has begun to expand his horizon a bit.

Songs like “Sea of Love,” which might be my favorite song of the year so far, rallies about a situation filled with bad choices, a typical National song. What is not typical of the National, however, is some moments of dark humor and some namedrops across the record (Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album being one, to bring home the sadness). The National’s best albums, the two that preceded “Trouble,” relied on slight changes from the previous album, to make a separate but familiar listen. While the previous changes have been largely musical, “Trouble”s change relies more in lyric. Berninger seems to be making an attempt to bring himself closer to the listener, although the National have always been an engrossing band already. Still, Berninger sings about his own troubles, just ones that he relates to the listeners. The album’s cover, an interesting one on it’s one, serves as a symbol for these troubles as Berninger is swallowed by his inner demons and can only look to himself for help. Somehow, he makes us all understand.

The National have never been stupendous musically, and “Trouble” is no different, as the band focuses on the emotional impact of the lyrics. “Sea of Love”s pounding rhythm is one of their loudest songs, and is kind of a surprise on the album. But a majority of the songs are moderate-volume, guitar- or piano-driven tracks with repetitive music and lyrics, the band’s style. Sufjan Stevens, Richard Reed Parry and St. Vincent are among the album’s guest stars, with St. Vincent providing brief but powerful vocals on “Sea of Love.” The album may run a little long, and it feels a little anticlimactic after “Sea of Love”s boom, but the National have a way to always stay in the listener’s head. “Trouble Will Find Me” does this even more than their previous albums, and it might just be their best one yet.

-Andrew McNally