Culturespill » Neon bible

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

21st December



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

The Grammies Get it Right! (Wait, say WHAT??!)

4th December


Just when you think the Grammies are so full of crap that you can barely stand the stink any longer, they toss some nods in the direction of folks like Arcade Fire, Black Keys, Vampire Weekend, Band of Horses, Neil Young, Richard Thompson, Bela FleckBroken Bells, Florence & The Machine and other groups that can never be mistaken for anything other than actual, you know, recording artists. Even ol’ Willie has something to distract him from his 78th pot bust last week, scoring a nod for his rootsy album Country Music, a stripped-bare dose of country music the way it sounded before Nashville strapped it to a post and paddled it until it agreed to become the foul and unlistenable bastardization of the genre that it is today.

Of course, this is the Grammies, and so the 53rd annual awards show will feature, as usual, one of the most bizarre crossroads the music industry can possibly assemble. Grizzled warhorses like Neil Young will share the same billing as Drake and Jay-Z and the utterly insufferable Jewel will inhabit the same edifice as Win Butler. But that’s how it is at the Grammy Awards, where Lady Gaga lavishes Elton John in a rain of adoration from across her piano, Brittney Spears locks tongues with Madonna, and Soy Bomb gets more pub than Dylan the day after the latter brings home the first Album of the Year award of his life at the tender young age of 56 (an incident remembered fondly in the sublime Eels track, “Whatever Happened to Soy Bomb?”). reports that the Grammies honored no less than 273 indie artists with nominations this year–more than half of all nominations. The story then goes on to completely discredit itself with a quote alleging that Taylor Swift is an indie artist. But given the embarrassing legacy that the Grammies have developed over the years, mere tastelessness is better than the baffling indifference afforded The Strokes and The White Stripes back in 2002, when both White Blood Cells and Is This It? earned a combined total of zero nominations despite their standing as easily the two most interesting and superior rock albums of the year. Instead, the “Best new Artist” category that year gave the Strokes the “talk to the hand” treatment in favor of acts like Michelle Branch. Right, enough said.

The Stripes got the shaft in favor of “artists” such as Avril Lavigne (who? That skater-chick from Canada who did that teeny-bopper anthem for Dawson’s Creek, you mean?) while The Neptunes, The Vines, and The Hives also got hosed. But if getting ignored by the Grammies is a sure way to demonstrate your creative integrity (hint: It is), The Strokes, Stripes and friends are doing just fine for themselves, thank you very much. As for who should win this year and, of course, who will win instead, here are Culturespill’s picks in a handful of the major categories:

Record of the Year:
images.jpgWith a slate of nominees such as Bruno Mars, Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Jay-Z, and something called “Cee Lo Green,” which I think is a kind of environmentally friendly glass cleaner, does anyone really give a shit who wins here? With ten nods going to Eminem in total, this one is almost certain to go to Mr. Shady. The Jay-Z/Alicia Keys “Empire State of Mind,” a song that basically amounts to a musical grocery list of all the neat things that the rich and famous appreciate about NYC, is a possible sleeper here–if for no other reason than to offer Alicia a baby gift in light of the recent birth of her son, Egypt Daoud Dean (Can you say “Apple Blythe Alison Martin“?).

Album of the Year:
index.jpgIt is just as obvious that Arcade Fire is by far the more deserving winner here as it is that the Grammy folks don’t have the balls to go there. The only genuinely daring winner of this category in recent memory was Steely Dan’s horrendous Two Against Nature, and maybe Dylan’s win for the brilliant and career-resurrecting Time out of Mind in 1998. Other than that, this one almost always goes to the pop trash celebrity of the moment, and that distinction, clearly, goes to Katy Perry for Teenage Dream, a sure-fire winner this year. Other nominees: Eminem, Recovery; Lady Antebellum, Need You Now; Lady Gaga, The Fame Monster. A good year for ladies named “Lady.”

Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance:
paul.jpgSurely Apple has paid off the Grammy folks by now to the tune of whatever it takes to ensure that McCartney wins for his delivery of “Helter Skelter” on Good Evening New York City, a live CD released this year on–wait for it–the Starbucks record label Hear Music. Whatever amount of payola the Grammy folks received from Apple to use this as further advertising fodder for their announcement that Beatles music is now available on iTunes will probably be enough to bring it home. It’s a crowded category this year, including used-up former gods such as Robert Plant or Eric Clapton, whose continued laurel-resting inspired perhaps the most notorious exchange in Culturespill history in the comments below our review of Clapton’s Robert Johnson covers album. If there was a true God, though, the good deity would ensure that this year’s award for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance goes to its rightful winner, and that has to be Neil Young for “Angry World,” easily one of the man’s most inspired rock performances since the night he damn-near burned down the building with his terrifying performance of “Rockin’ in the Free World” on SNL in 1989. Le Noise is the most engaging record Neil has done in at least 15 years and earned him three nominations this year. Other nominees in this category: John Mayer, “Crossroads.” Yes, John Mayer. You are now free to throw up in your own mouth.

Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals:
arcade.jpgIt should come as no surprise that the track nominated in this category from the Black Keys’s brilliant new record Brothers happens to rank among the least interesting moments on the entire album. It is equally unsurprising that “Tighten Up” was also the first single that Nonesuch tagged for promos when the record hit the streets earlier this year. Had the Grammy shills bothered to actually listen to the record before choosing a track to nominate under this category, they might have considered “The Next Girl,” “Howlin’ For You” or “She’s Long Gone.” Since they failed to do so, the winner here has to be Arcade Fire’s “Ready to Start.” Other nominees in this category: Jeff Beck & Joss Stone, “I Put a Spell on You“; Kings of Leon, “Radioactive“; Muse, “Resistance.”

Best Rock Album:
muse.jpgFunny how the more cluttered the scene becomes with young bands vying for a spare slice of the glory pie their forebears baked so long ago, the more those forebears remind us that they know best how to rock. Three of the five nominees in this category have roamed the earth for a combined 180+ years: Neil Young, Jeff Beck, and Tom Petty. Others, the boy-band-as-rock-‘n-rollers concept group Muse and grunge priests Pearl Jam, ought to have no chance whatsoever in winning over any of the other three. Here again, Young’s “Le Noise” is by far the ballsiest record of the five nominees, with Beck’s “Emotion & Commotion” a clear runner-up only because Petty’s Mojo turned out to be running a little lower than he realized (forgettable toss-offs like “Candy” and “No Reason to Cry” cramp the style of rock ‘n roll stunners like “I Should Have Known it” and “Running Man’s Bible“). But, as always, most likely this one will go to the shittiest of the five nominees, namely Muse.

Click here for the full list of nominees for the 53rd annual Grammy Awards. If you prefer the PDF version, go here.