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Best Albums of 2010 Series: “The Suburbs,” Arcade Fire

21st December

 

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2007’s Neon Bible found Arcade Fire sneaking early-’80s Bruce Springsteen into an abandoned church in Quebec and having him sing about antichrists in the television while the band kept the car running. It’s a safe bet that few among the legions who dropped to the floor in love after their first full listen of Funeral had the slightest clue that Springsteen owned  a fraction of the influence from which that music emerged. And it’s just as certain that even fewer gave a flying dog turd about Springsteen themselves. So to hear Win Butler wear that affinity like a shocking tattoo on Neon Bible was an alienating experience for fans of the band’s debut LP.

Neon Bible was no Funeral, and even The Suburbs, for all its obvious brilliance, also suggests that the fire the band trapped in the bottle of Funeral burns at a different temperature these days. It still blazes, but its environment is just a bit less volatile and prone to fewer sparks, its flames have changed color from their atomic tangerine to some pale hue of iris. It’s neither better or worse, but perhaps a bit easier on the bottle it writhes in, a little less likely to burst. The more music Arcade Fire releases the more Funeral sounds like the document of a fevered imagination; everything that we hear now is the sound of the aftermath. It is still beautiful but more conventionally so, still rending but cautious, still spontaneous but self-conscious.

The foreboding atmospherics with which Neon Bible opened reflected the paranoia of a band suddenly struck by the discomforting possibility that Funeral had turned them into some big important band now, the sort that wears the ankle weights of fans’ expectations in the studio. Win Butler sang of “waking from a nightmare” only to find himself in some moonless landscape in the black of night. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched, “shot by a security camera” as he struggled to even make out his own reflection in the “black mirror” of uncertainty. The track so seamlessly played like an outtake from David Bowie’s Scary Monsters that it was as if the band clung to that familiar ghost for comfort in the tortured terrain of the song.

Keep the Car Running,” like “Antichrist Television Blues,” was an absolutely brilliant reclamation of the band’s powers after the album’s uncertain opening statement. And the rest of the record’s grab-bag of sounds spanned a range from pipe organ to  woodwinds to hurdy gurdy that demonstrated nothing if not the boundless confidence of a band in full possession of its powers, fear of fame be damned.  It was an excellent record on its own that never once approached the pathos of “Crown of Love” or “The Backseat,” and it seemed to almost deliberately sidestep the radiant unpredictability of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” or “Neighborhood #2 (Laika).”

Neon’s grandiose departure from the sound they honed on Funeral continues with The Suburbs, if a bit more quietly. A palm tree arches over an aging sedan on the cover art’s fading canvas as if to signal that the band is more at ease after the venting of their last LP.  The record is less bombastic and opens on a noticeably more settled note than that darker predecessor with its breezy gem of a title track.  “Ready to Start” crackles with all the sunny adrenaline of “Keep the Car Running,” and the haunted “Deep Blue” is quite possibly the finest piece of music the band has ever put to tape. The lyrics themselves are a restorative measure that heal the fractured psyche explored on “Black Mirror,” as Butler sings of being back in his own skin where he “can finally begin” and do so at a pace so completely his own that he kicks back and watches the century pass him by. A more majestic four minutes cannot be found on any other album released this year.

And yet “We Used to Wait,” the very next track,  somehow manages to sustain the power of its predecessor. Suddenly Butler’s not so sure about all that talk of self-assuredness he just got done with on “Deep Blue.” The lovers he sings about find their lives in the throes of change and can only “hope that something pure can last.” Regine Chassagne, who spends much of the album waiting behind its velvet curtain, returns to center stage with a stunning nod to new-wave on “Sprawl II (Beyond Mountains).” Her voice floats through the song’s misted air of whining synths that at times recalls the blue ruin of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face.” If the record’s energy flounders occasionally on the many tracks between these high points, it is only because its best moments set standards no band can possibly expect to meet for the full length of an LP.

The Suburbs is superior to Neon if only by a horse’s nose at Belmont Stakes, and as a whole it is the band’s finest statement to date even if moments on Funeral scale heights the band is still yet to revisit.  Only The National’s High Violet has any claim to the throne Arcade Fire seizes with this LP.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Why Billy Idol Still Matters

10th June

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OK, I’m not going to pull any punches on this one: I adore the work of Billy Idol. If you’re curling your lip in disgust at me now, it can only be for one of the following reasons: you take yourself way too seriously, you’re lying to yourself, or you just weren’t there to begin with. By “there,” of course, I mean the 1980s–that unsettling time warp available to us only in our strangest and most guilty memories now, back when coke was the new booze and people like Idol fist-pumped their way to leather-clad glory on FM stations across the globe.

I vividly recall sitting in the backseat of my mother’s car as my then-teenage sister twisted the knob of the stereo in frenzied pursuit of the next pop station, all five feet of her frizzed-out hair glowing with calculated shades of blue, blonde and black. My mother, for her part, spent most days donned in a spandex unitard with thick purple socks scrunched halfway up her shins en route to teach another aerobics class, eliciting not a single second glance nor chuckle on the way.

You could get away with that sort of thing back then–it was the 80s, when vaguely androgynous strangelings in Kimonos and pirate costumes told you that you spin him “like a record baby round round” on some fledgling concept called MTV, a band called “A Flock of Seagulls” could storm the charts with a synth-drenched tune about alien abduction, and we elected a bemused octogenarian in the throes of Alzheimer’s to the presidency (well, Reagan wasn’t quite in his ninth decade just yet–but you get the picture.)


Billy Idol: “Scream,” Devil’s Playground (2005)

Back at that gym where my mother helped the housewives of Brooklyn work their gluts in double time, the women spent as much energy doing crunches as they did conspiring to leave their husbands in clustered circles of gossip by the restroom. Most of them followed through on those threats, of course, and the neuroses of an entire generation were born in broken homes.

Yet how unfortunate it is that Billy Idol’s inarguably huge presence amid all the cultural dross of that most peculiar decade is so inextricably tied to our private nostalgias, hand-cuffed to a past he defined so thoroughly that we’ll never forgive him for it now, despite the sizzling set of new rock songs he put out back in 2005 called Devil’s Playground, subsequently treating audiences around the world to some of the most energetic shows any 50-year-old man has ever performed. Idol isn’t helping matters by releasing his second greatest hits package in seven years, Idolize Yourself (out June 24 from Capitol Records), cashing in on dated glories once again just as he exhibits every capacity to generate new ones.

When Weird Al put out a cover of Idol’s cover of Tommy James’s “Mony Mony” and called it “Alimony” on his Even Worse album, Billy was already well on his way to becoming some sort of running joke by 1988. By the time he put out the disastrous and universally ignored Cyberpunk album in 1993, flannel and self-loathing sold a hell of a lot better than the new wave excess of a dead era, and Idol promptly made himself scarce for the rest of the decade after recovering from a near-fatal drug overdose (cue cheesy VH1 “Behind the Music” cliches here.)


Weird Al Yankovich: “Alimony,” Even Worse (1988)

Fortunately for those who were there, however, he didn’t make himself scarce for good. For all the flack Idol has (somewhat deservedly) brought on himself over the years, 2005’s Devil’s Playground confirmed that there was some substance beneath the style, the beating heart of a true rocker who wrote his own songs and chiseled one unforgettable hook after another with the equally under-appreciated Steve Stevens, a brilliant guitarist who proves his worth on a mostly acoustic solo outing he offered in 2000, Flamenco-A-Go-Go. If you think it’s easy to do that, write your own pop song and see how it goes. It is a terribly underrated skill, and one that distinguishes Idol’s talent from that of more contemporary pop stars who walk into a studio, have a song handed to them, and are told how to sing it as some morbidly obese billionaire executive glances at his glittering Rolex behind the glass in Studio A.

2005’s Devil’s Playground came to be when reps from Sanctuary Records took Idol aside after a show of his at the Hammerstein and expressed the desire to sign him for a new album of songs in his old style (in other words, “please don’t make it sound like that Cyberpunk shit.”) Tracks like “Bodysnatcher,” “Rat Race” and “Evil Eye” exploded with a sharp-toothed and bass-rich energy that found a more-seasoned Billy Idol updating his sound without ever getting in the way, while “Romeo’s Waiting” put Idol’s skills as a songwriter on display in a way that no previous album had done:

Cocaine and innocence
And Romeo’s waiting
Candies and sugar daddies
They never stop wasting your time
Time to dance to the top
With champagne indifference
And I sit salivating
If I could touch you there
Would you be liberated?
Ah yeah

I don’t wanna be
Another enemy
Even though you make be bleed
Like a Kennedy

Over the top? Of course–it’s a Billy fucking Idol song–but, in both language and sound, it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than the vast majority of the bubble gum that passes for music on FM radio today. Raw, blistering and–perhaps most importantly–completely convincing, the album marked the unsung but no-less triumphant come-back of a guy pop culture had so easily left for dead. Though it sounds hyperbolic, some of the material on Devil’s Playground quite clearly ranked among the finest work of the man’s life, and awakened legions of rock critics to an unrecognized yearning for that snarl and fist pump they’d almost forgotten. “It could conceivably be the comeback of the year,” Mojo said as Blender conceded that it was “an entertaining album” through seemingly gritted teeth.


Billy Idol Doing an Unplugged “Flesh For Fantasy” on VH1 Storytellers

Though Billy is apparently struggling to strip himself of the conviction that we need to hear yet another reissued version of “Rebel Yell” and “White Wedding” all over again on his forthcoming greatest hits package, the new single it includes, which you can stream at his website, is better by leaps and bounds than that lame cover of “Don’t You Forget About Me” he slapped onto the last hits CD in 2001.

Idol’s got a penchant for really terrible covers–if you’ve somehow managed to endure Charmed Life’s “LA Woman” in its entirety without bleeding from the ears, you already know this. If not, well, I don’t blame you. So it is of considerable relief that he stuck to his own guns this time around with a strong new track called “John Wayne,” an eerily Cure-ish and radio-ready rock ballad that summons the ghosts of “Eyes Without A Face” and “Blue Highway.” Age isn’t something that was supposed to happen to Billy Idol; but that the man is making music as strong as “John Wayne” and Devil’s Playground as he prepares to turn 53 years-old suggests that we may have failed to see past the glitter all those years ago to catch a glimpse of the grit.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com