Monday, December 21, 2009

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob: Week 39 - The Arcade Fire

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

I didn't specifically pick the Arcade Fire this week with the Charge Aught!!! project in mind, but it fits. I know depressingly little about the music of the last ten years; in a way, it seems that it has been a struggle for anyone to find a narrative with which to frame the fragmented hyper-specific genres of modern music.

"Indie" is the buzzword of the decade. Nominally referring to independent record labels, the term seems to be increasingly used to describe everything that doesn't easily fit into some sort of pre-fabricated mold. But in its ubiquity it has come to represent absolutely nothing - a meaningless word used by detractors to lambast perceived pretensions, or thrown around by fans in a hopeless attempt to define one's musical tastes in some sort of easily summable manner.

In many ways, the Arcade Fire are stereotypical indie - strange instruments, opaque lyrics, funny dress, a inflated sense of pomp (and they're Canadian!). Perhaps they're the best band to represent the strange musical scene of the aughts - quirky, drawing from a myriad of influences, and difficult to sum up in a few words or hedge under any particular style. And, above all, not too popular. They're beginning to top a lot of the best of the decade lists, but excluding critics, hipsters and college students, they still seem fairly under the radar. They may be one of the bigger acts to come out of the indie scene this decade, but, all Spike Jonze trailers aside, that doesn't mean they're well-known by any means.



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Admittedly, I obtained both Arcade Fire albums this October, and I had listened to both of them a few times. Before that, I had a vague idea that the Arcade Fire was an "indie" band, but I had no idea what they actually sounded like.

MY LISTENING: It was an easy week, as the Arcade Fire only has two full-length albums. I listened to Funeral (2004) every day this week, and managed to listen to Neon Bible (2007) at least three times.


I was uncertain at first, when I learned that this was a band that mixed standard guitar rock with other string instruments - it sounded like a gimmick, and not necessarily a gimmick that would be fun to listen to. I mean, their songs feature mandolins, cellos, hurdy gurdys, even a pipe organ. On paper, this shouldn't work at all.

But the Arcade Fire are (is?) damn catchy. They have the ability to pepper their songs with a lot of hooks that grab hold of your brain and don't let go, utilizing their bizarre collection of instruments in just the right way to make each track a memorable experience. When the pipe organ comes in on "Intervention", or some weird steel drum thingy starts playing on "Haiti", it's not just an aural stunt; instead, it really defines the song.

Their strange ensemble manages to pack enough weight to rival symphony orchestras, and they do it not by bellowing music at a loud volume, but through expressive performances and a sense of the dramatic. They can blast it, yes, but songs like "In the Backseat", while they might take a little more effort to appreciate, prove that the Arcade Fire can handle the fragile just as well as the bombastic.

I also liked the flow of the albums. Both Funeral and Neon Bible start with a quiet bubbling tension ("Neighborhood #1", "Black Mirror"), slowly building and receding through several crescendoing songs ("Wake Up", "Ocean of Noise"), before reaching a catharsis on the penultimate track ("Rebellion [Lies]", "No Cars Go"), and finishing off with a poignant, more reserved conclusion ("In the Backseat", "My Body is a Cage"). Not only do the individual songs hold up well, but each album feels like a cohesive unit to the point that I have a hard time listening to an individual track separate from the context of its respective LP. I'm a big fan of this sort of emotional release through music, and in this the Arcade Fire caters directly to me.


Sometimes they take themselves too seriously. I realize that this is a common complaint about "indie" music, but it's not without merit. Their debut album Funeral is just heavy enough to carry some real emotional weight. But Neon Bible attempts to go even further, verging from the moderately impassioned to the downright cinematic. I can deal with musical melodrama when I'm in a certain mood (I actually thought Neon Bible was the superior album when I first heard it). But when Win Butler whines that he "don't want to live in America no more", I want to yell at him to go back to Canada with the rest of his northern ilk. Funeral, an album about relationships and connections between people, was an effective and affecting use of the Arcade Fire's theatrical flair. Neon Bible, a high-concept critique of organized religion, takes that flair and turns it into a stereotype of young white hipster angst. It's still damn good music, but it takes itself so seriously that I find it hard to take it seriously at all.


I learned that indie music is catchier and more accessible than I had been led to believe, but occasionally just as pretentious as I feared.

I also learned that just because you play the accordion or the xylophone doesn't mean you can't rock out with the best of them.


The problem is I don't know where to begin. I'm sufficiently intrigued by this decade's "indie" phenomenon to continue exploring, but it's tricky ground - after this point, the bands get more obscure, the band names get more ridiculous, and the fans themselves get more annoying. Also, "indie" itself is such a wide genre that all sorts of music is crammed in here. Merely typing "indie" into Pandora won't work - rather, how do I go about finding acts similar to the Arcade Fire? Or are there any?


"Rebellion (Lies)"


"In the Backseat"


I'm taking a two week break for the holidays, which should give me sufficient time to explore The Rolling Stones. I'll be back in 2010.