header("Content-Type: text/html; charset=utf-8"); ?>
In times of aloof coolness, it's always refreshing to hear and recognise the sound of a band who care what they are singing about. And do the Montréal-based band Arcade Fire ever sing with feeling on their remarkable debut. Their songs of family, neighbourhood and real people, rooted in their Québec upbringing, are set to a sequence of flawless tunes by songwriting couple Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, with some searingly intense arrangements.
Their lyrics, as many great lyrics do, relate simple images without being overly descriptive. "Tunnels" is a song I wish I had known when I was 15 years old, with the wonderful idea of a pair of teenagers escaping from family angst, through secret tunnels, to their own snowy urban hideout. The music of this song announces that they're a guitar band with a whole lot more, as it builds up a great swell of sound from a single stomping rhythm. Throughout the album, inspired touches like mad distorted pianos, and cellos used for choppy rhythm-guitar effects, do an admirable job of adding a focused intensity to their sound. It's no arty post-rock or prog, just some of the freshest straight-ahead guitar rock I've heard for ages. Win Butler's vocals, especially on the slower numbers, remind me of the nasal tones of Roger Waters. His shoutier moments, on "Laika" and the electrifying "Power Out", also bring to mind the detached funkiness of Modest Mouse. It can be hard at first out to pick out the lyrics, but his delivery is pitched at exactly the right level to sound sincere without being hammy or over-earnest.
There's not a duff tune on the entire album. The most massive of these is "Wake Up", all air-punching and foot-stamping, with the blaring glam attitude of a T-Rex anthem. Glam is also in evidence on the simpler rocker "Rebellion (Lies)", with a more Bowie-like edgy coolness. On "Crown of Love" the juicily double-edged apologies of a wavering lover are set to an evocative waltz tune. There's the odd moment where they relax the pace, like on the slower "Une Année Sans Lumière" - but not for long - one of their signatures, used tinglingly here and elsewhere, is suddenly kicking up the tempo near the end of the song. Annoyingly, radio stations insist on cutting Arcade Fire tracks off too early! The other ballad, "Kettles", reflects the neighbourhood's patient constancy, to spiderwebs of folk fiddle twiddling and a bizarrely effective bass drum kick.
"Haiti" one of two numbers sung by Régine Chassagne, appropriately for a tribute to the land of her origin, has the most exotic sound, with a piercing combination of piano and violin. The other, "In the Backseat", is a highly inappropriate song to have in your head the day after passing your driving test. In a belting chorus, the narrator admits she prefers to sit in the back because of a tragedy-rooted fear of getting behind the wheel. It's in that uninhibited singing style loved by Cerys Matthews from Catatonia, but it's better than any Catatonia song (apart from perhaps "Bulimic Beats").
With such warm, evocative and honest lyrics, performed with such a rocking vigour and produced with brain-bending musical flair, I can honestly find nothing that I dislike or am indifferent to about the Arcade Fire's debut. I suppose the follow-up will be difficult, after such a debut I'd be tempted to make it legendary by quitting at the top or relaunching under a different name. After they ironically entitled their first work "Funeral" after a sequence of family deaths, I only hope they don't continue the curse by dying young themselves!
October 21, 2005