Friday, December 7, 2007

Are You Passionate? - The Arcade Fire

I got an exhilarating glimpse of passionate music from two different video clips on YouTube the other night, both involving the Arcade Fire. The first clip featured them live in concert, performing “Keep the Cars Running” - a song from their second album, “Neon Bible”. They were joined onstage by none other than Bruce Springsteen, who fit in perfectly with these young Canadians. This was a Springsteen song if ever there was one. It’s just that someone else wrote it.
The second clip featured the Arcade Fire on stage, this time with U2, whom they toured with recently. They were performing Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” – a song that alone makes up for all of the cheesy synthesizer moves in pop music over the years. But no one was playing a synthesizer in this clip. It was just a bunch of people playing a song they loved with the instruments at hand.
So in the space of two clips, they pulled together four strands of “passionate music”. That should be a redundant term - music is supposed to be passionate, and many artists spend a lot of time trying to simulate it. (I’m no purest, though. I’ll take a good fake over genuine garbage any day.) So whatever you may think of the artists in question, I’m willing to believe that they mean it – that they put it on the line every time.
I like clever as much as the next guy. Funny is good, too. Loud and fast is great. But passionate is best. It burns out, it doesn’t rust.
Such artists are easy to spoof, but that’s the risk they take and I deeply respect them for it. And Arcade Fire, fits right into this category. There are parts on both of their albums when it seems like the singer has gone off the deep end, and the band is right there behind him. This can seem ridiculous at times, but that’s the high wire act they perform on.
Their first record, “Funeral”, could remind you of early Talking Heads, carrying on that grand tradition bands led by complete lunatics. Win Butler’s voice does not always make it up to the register he insists on singing in. But that’s okay. He practically starts crying on the very first song (“Tunnels”). But, damn, if you don’t get totally swept up in it. “Laika” sounds like a gypsy caravan has crashed into your house. “Power Out” is anything but. “Wake Up” and “Rebellion (Lies)” could raise the dead. And it all ends with the beautiful and powerful “In the Backseat”.
But there are several quieter moments, like “Haiti” and “Kettles”, throughout. This contrast in tone is one of the reasons why “Funeral” is a stronger record than “Neon Bible”. The quiet spots make the peaks seem all the higher.
I do like the second one a lot, too, but it’s more like a Springsteen or U2 album, and I miss the quirkiness. I think the problem with it is epitomized by “Intervention”, which begins with a church organ. It’s hard to rev it up further when that’s your starting point. It’s a perfectly good song, and I suspect that it’s brilliant when played live.
“Neon Bible” does have its great moments like “Keep the Car Running” and “No Cars Go”. The finale, “My Body is a Cage”, is fine, but it’s got that damned church organ. “Funeral”s finale - “In the Backseat” – by contrast, settles for a rock-and-roll-with-violin arrangement to much greater effect. And this is the other reason why “Funeral” is the better album. The instrumentation is more limited, but they do more with it.
But maybe I’m mistaken. Perhaps number two has a more powerful overall sound. The issues are less private and more political. Maybe that will resonate more with you than with me.
In any case, the Arcade Fire reach for, and often achieve, a level of emotional urgency are that are undeniable. In this day of calculated effect, they will not settle for entertaining you. Judging from the video clips I saw, their concerts are transcendent.
Their music can be a little uncomfortable but it’s because they are asking you, are you passionate? They sure are.

Now playing: Arcade Fire - Rebellion
via FoxyTunes

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