Sunday, October 10, 2010

This century's OK Computer

There's a CD that is getting the Hot Fuss treatment, which means I've been playing it non-stop for weeks. This new album is the closest thing to "OK Computer" I've heard.

Can you guess what disc I'm talking about?

I think that hint gives it away. It's Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs." The Montreal band, consisting of nearly 321 members, has produced a masterpiece, plain and simple. This album is the best one I've heard since I was recuperating from surgery and listening to the Killers' debut effort way back in 2004.
Highly produced, extremely atmospheric and loaded with ambition, this collection of 16 tracks wades through a familiar topic -- American suburbia with all its traps, false hopes, distant memories and trashed dreams. While this motif could be boring in a less-talented band's hand, this band hits the sweet spot. Win Butler's lyrics turn the simple streets of Houston into a Blade Runner-esque dystopia, and he does it with a sincere passion.

Since I'm far from a musician, I can't act like an expert on the sound, but I find it fascinating. Every song fits in with the others to serve the album's larger theme, ala Radiohead's "OK Computer." No one song really sticks out head and shoulders above the rest, but no song is wasted. Every guitar rift, drum beat, string instrument, every backup vocal is handled with care. Let's start at the beginning ...

1. The Suburbs (7/10) -- A jaunty opener, this song sets the stage for the motifs that will pop up through through the album -- suburban war and decay, boredom and moving on from one's roots. Like most Arcade Fire songs, several instruments and melodies conflate here, but the accompanying piano rift and the high-pitched chorus burst through most prominently.

2. Ready to Start (9/10) -- The most radio-friendly tune with a tremendous intro featuring a steady drum beats and distorted guitar. "If the businessmen drink my blood / like the kids in art school said they would." That should give you an idea what Butler is going for with this one as he attempts to escape his suburban home with his music. I think he succeeded. Even though it's a single, the song isn't simply verse-chorus-verse like most rock songs you hear over the airwaves, which is why this album just gets better the more you listen to it. The songs veer into unpredictable paths.

3. Modern Man (7/10) -- A clean, guitar driven song that features Butler pondering the emptiness of being a ... modern man. Self-explanatory. Not the best, but solid.

4. Rococo (9/10) -- Now this is classic Arcade Fire. No other band I've heard sounds quiet like this -- a haunting orchestra with a sly, creeps-under-your-skin melody. "They seem wild but they are so tame / They're moving towards you with their colors all the same," Butler warns of today's poseur, conformist teenagers. The song's title refers to an art form from 18th century Europe. This is an ambitious group and they won't be singing about pot or girls. Great, great song.

5. Empty Room (8/10) -- Regine Chassagne, Win Butler's wife, makes her first appearance as lead singer in this orchestral/punk romp with great work by the band's violinists. "When I'm by myself / I can be myself" she yelps. One of the album's shorter tunes, it injects some life after the dreary Rococo.

6. City With No Children (9/10) -- Empty Room segues into this catchy, radio-enticing songs with the album's most memorable guitar rift. Butler brings up his hometown of Houston directly as he dreams of driving back home in an underground highway and listening to the engine failing. The guy writes great lyrics. Reminds me of when I go back home to Cranston and look at the empty streets of my old neighborhood, streets that used to teem with children playing kickball or manhunt. And then I cleanse my dentures.
7. Half Light I (7/10) -- Chassagne and Butler team up on the vocals in this captivating song that pours out the melancholy and revels in mystery. It's not a song you will hear as a single, but it's a song that keeps you listening for the chance you might discover something new even on the tenth listen.

8. Half Light II (No Celebration) (8/10) -- I know I've used the word "haunting" before, but it's what I think of most. Like OK Computer, this album never lets up. While not as downright depressing, its melancholy is thick and unforgettable. Butler sings of the markets crashing and going back home to a town he doesn't know anymore, backed up by a wall-of-sound effect where all of Arcade Fire's instruments mesh into a techno rhythm. "Though we knew this day would come / Still it took us by surprise / In the town where I was born / I now see through a dead man's eyes." Katy Perry this is not.

9. Suburban War (10/10) -- Where Butler sounds a bit excited by going back home in "The Suburbs," he also laments in this coupling of a song that refers to some of the same exact lyrics of earlier tunes. A wavy guitar drags down the mood even as the keyboards try to lift it up. "All my old friends, they don't know me know." Simply fascinating and enticing, I just can't help but throw myself into this song every time. It's a Pink Floyd experience.

10. Month of May (8/10) -- The pace picks up with this Ramones tribute. When they want to, Arcade Fire can produce a toe-tapping rocker like the best of them. Butler refers to his stoic teenage fans with their arms crossed tight in a pain too much for someone so young.

11. Wasted Hours (6/10) -- Not one of my favorites, but a good song on any normal album. This is as acoustic as these ambitious arena rockers get.
12. Deep Blue (7/10) -- Butler remembers his first forays into the music world in this dirge mid-tempo offering where he urges suburbanites to put down the laptops and cell phones and find the wild in the night. Sometimes I forget this song is here, but I'm always pleasantly surprised.

13. We Used to Wait (10/10) -- Enigmatic lyrically, but a home run musically. This is my favorite song on the album, just a hair above "Suburban War." The piano bass line is the kicker. I love it. The chorus is a gem as well. Over five minutes long, this song weaves it way from the opening piano to an anthemic chorus made for sing-alongs at concerts. This goes up there with "Wake Up" and "Keep the Car Running" among Arcade Fire's best.

14. Sprawl I (Flatland) (6/10) -- Haunting, there's that word again. Butler recounts driving in his old neighborhood, looking for his former house and the places in which he used to play and feeling out of place, like he's traversing through a dead town. I can certainly relate to that. While the music itself isn't memorable, the lyrics are.

15. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) (9/10) -- This sounds more like Blondie than Arcade Fire, but I really like it. Backed by a synthesizer, the charming Chassagne sings of being ostracized in a sprawling suburb of conformity. "Dead shopping mall rise like mountains beyond mountains." This is a unique offering in their catalogue and a nice change-of-pace. It's also the catchiest song on the entire album.

16. The Suburbs (continued) (5/10) -- Bands always do this, ending albums with a whimper instead of bang. They finish with some 10 minute meandering mess or a tiny one-minute throw-away. Why not end with something great? Anyway, Arcade Fire reprises the opening song. It's not really a stand-along song, so I guess it's unfair to say it's the worst. Basically, the true ending to this collection is Sprawl II and this is just a coda.

Whew. That took a while, but I had to do it. This album has been on an endless loops in my car for nearly two weeks. I can't stop listening to it. "The Suburbs" is that damn good. Listen to it. Now!

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