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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Arcade Fire -- Funeral

I can't remember any album getting more immediate praise in the last couple of decades than The Arcade Fire's Funeral. Take a glance at Metacritic's compilation of its reviews--there are eight 10's. Listening to their music, I couldn't help feeling like I was at a high school pep rally, slightly excited, but experiencing something I wasn't really a part of. Then I saw this performance on Conan:

After witnessing that insanity, I felt indebted to at least purchase Arcade Fire's album, even with my meager, post-collegiate funds. What did my money buy?
Funeral is full of energy, that's for sure. Even during its few slowed-down, more morose numbers, there is still an unbridled optimism lurking just beneath the surface. It features a lot of the benchmarks of indie-rock: weird instruments and noises tossed in to cover a lack of technicality, under-production to highlight either non-pop cred or a slight lack of interest in sounding polished, and vocalists who can't quite sing well. What makes this different from anything else? Or in other words, what got critics all jazzed on Funeral to the point that they gushed over it like 80's schoolgirls over a Johnny Deep cover-issue of Tiger Beat?
I think earnestness is the deciding factor. Irony is also a defining mark in indie-rock, and it is definitely something that Arcade Fire lacks. All those pictures of them wearing wacky clothes and waving flags don't seem calculated--the kids honestly seem to like waving flags and wearing wacky clothes.
Subject matter is another strong point. When Win Butler sings about the lack of connection and feeling in his community, he seems genuinely saddened and upset by it, especially when he feels he is the culprit. The coupling of genuinity and topic work. Take "Wake Up" for example, easily Funeral's most well-known track:

Listen to Arcade Fire's "Wake Up"

"Something filled up/my heart with nothing/someone told me not to cry/But now that I'm older/my heart's colder/and I can see that it's a lie/Children wake up/hold your mistake up/before they turn the summer into dust" Butler sings. This could easily come off as overly-sentimental, or a false stab at emotion, but under the earnestness of his delivery, it sounds as authentic as it possibly can. The entire album fares the same in this regard.
So why isn't this a classic for me?
Well, just because something is genuine, doesn't make it good. This is good, though. Just not perfect. It's got some decidedly weak aspects:
The plodding tempo that hogs the middle of the album brings it down a bit. I'm surprised no one ever mentions this. Tracks three, five, six, and seven are all low-key, and almost follow the same framework of keeping the same mid-tempo rhythm throughout until a fast-paced outro. Some of these songs are the best on the album, but stacked all together, they start sounding stale.
"Haiti" doesn't fit at all with the rest of Funeral. It's pretty and all, but should it be here in this snowy, bright-lit neighborhood?
And finally, as genuine as Butler's lyrics are, they are not always good. The lyrics for "Rebellion (Lies)" remind me of poetry I typed at 3 am during my sophmore year of college--not a compliment. Otherwise, Funeral is good stuff. Not great stuff--and I honestly wonder how often those ten-givers actually listen to this now (though, I am sure some of them do)--but good. I'm glad that Arcade Fire made it at least another album without believing their own hype.

2004 Merge Records
1. Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) 4:48
2. Neighborhood #2 (Laïka) 3:32
3. Une Année Sans Lumière 3:40
4. Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) 5:12
5. Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles) 4:49
6. Crown of Love 4:42
7. Wake Up 5:35
8. Haïti 4:07
9. Rebellion (Lies) 5:10
10. In the Backseat 6:20

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