Friday, February 4, 2011

Putting Out the (Arcade) Fire: Why it took me seven years to discover a great band

I didn't listen to Arcade Fire until 2011.

There, I said it. Self-proclaimed "music experts" like myself are hard-pressed to admit when they missed the boat on critically-acclaimed artists, and stubborn to confess they like something when they aren't the first of their peers to hear it. If I told you that bullheadedness like this was above me, I'd be lying. But alas, here I am. Hi, I'm Jordan, and I'm not the coolest guy in the room. (Everyone say it with me: "Hi, Jordan.")

It's not like I hadn't heard of Arcade Fire. So, the important question here is simple: why did I -- the guy who must-must-must listen to everything -- continue to ignore such a universally-renown band? The answer, in part, is a combination of youth and ignorance (or as I'm likely to say when I'm older, ignorance and ignorance). My most important excuse, however, is simply a matter of bad timing. Cheap cop-out, you say? Hear me out for a second...

Let's be real here: I'm a hip-hop head, not a hipster. I'm pretty good at pretending I know a lot about Radiohead, but the truth is I'm not too familiar with many non-singles released pre-OK Computer (which came out, mind you, when I was 11). I do love rock music and was all over the big releases of the mid-to-late '90s (think Smashing Pumpkins, Beck, etc.), but my non-rap tastes in high school leaned more toward singer-songwriters and emo-punk (you know you liked it, too), not Björk and Portishead. I'm not apologizing; I was acting my age. Needless to say, a band like Arcade Fire was simply not on my radar when its debut album made its way into the ears of indie-heads in September 2004.

That debut, Funeral, dropped during my sophomore year in college (and if you had the band's self-released EP in 2003, congrats on out-cooling even more of us). Frankly, my musical intake was at an all-time low: my main concerns at the time were booze and buds, not rock and roll. WIth that in mind, turning me on to the next big thing in indie-rock was more distracting to me than it was exciting.

Once my alcohol tolerance reached fraternally-acceptable levels, I finally had time to get back to my passion for music discovery. I was introduced to The Decemberists sometime in 2005, and although it was a far cry from the typical music I consumed -- in-your-face MCs and/or sad-faced solo guitarists -- I was enamored from the get-go. At this point, most singer-songwriters failed to excite me (I truly believe this has a direct correlation with losing my virginity) and hip-hop was in a funk where we were still looking for the heir apparent to Jay-Z's throne (we learned soon enough that he never actually left it). Hence, there were musical mountains to climb and getting introduced to a group like The Decemberists couldn't have come at a better time. Who knows...maybe if Funeral came out a year later, I wouldn't be writing about this at all. Nonetheless, Arcade Fire arrived when they did and I missed out.

I have a semi-strict practice of starting with a band's first album, no matter when I discover the artist; so when Neon Bible (2007) and The Suburbs (2010) dropped, I was reluctant to dive in without hearing the debut first. Six-plus years and about 934 year-end lists later, I've finally sat down with Arcade Fire's catalog and can offer a thorough, no-BS opinion on it. Spoiler alert: I loved it.


My initial thought after the first ten seconds of Funeral went something like this: "Wow, I think I'm gonna like this. Why was I so resistant before? Do I even need to write about this anymore? (nods head happily to the beat)." The first two tracks are different, yet seamless -- if this came out in the '70s, I'm willing to bet they would've just been one long opus of a rock opera. I learned quickly that this is a common practice for Arcade Fire, and it's an old-school technique that I welcome with open arms. I'll spare you the full-on review, but it's safe to say I really enjoyed this album. A couple of notes:

- When I got to "Wake Up" it sparked contradictory feelings -- the "oh, I DO know this band" sigh of relief, but also the MGMT-esque "this song was in countless commercials and they were still indie darlings?" sense of frustration. That's not to say I'm against bands using ads to promote themselves; quite the contrary (I'll save that for another post). Just a surprise to say the least.

- In my opinion, if you're not melodic you're nothing, which is why so many "left-of-center" acts are so lost on me. Funeral's melodies grow stronger as the album progresses, and the album's epic ending, "In the Backseat," sounds a lot like -- guess who -- The Decemberists! (See what I did there? Yeah, you did.)

Neon Bible

Is bigger always better? Not in the case of AF's sophomore album, in my opinion. (Oh, you thought this was going to be all-positive? Clearly you don't know how I work!)

The size of the band is more apparent on Neon Bible, but I don't see that as a good thing. The grandiose arrangements ("Black Mirror") and questionably-frequent use of organs ("The Invervention") is just too much for my liking. The Polyphonic Spree came and left not too long ago, and I don't miss them at all. Also, I'm not gonna lie: this French shit gets to me. (Wait, they're Canadian? Whoops. Guess I can't blame them there.)

One more gripe: why do so many bands try to become Springsteen on their second albums? Damn-the-man anthems like "Antichrist Television Blues" and "Windowsill" aren't bad, but they've been done countless times before and simply don't resonate with me -- unless they're from "The Boss," of course.

The sense of melody that I adored from Funeral begins to return on "Keep the Car Running," but the over-the-top nature of Neon Bible's over-the top nature is the reason it is now my least-favorite of the Arcade Fire trilogy.

The Suburbs

In a way, I'm glad I've experienced all three albums at the same time -- Neon Bible was not my style and it might have steered me away from checking out The Suburbs...and wow, what a mistake that would have been.

I really like this project because the band -- for lack of a better term -- chills the fuck out, at least by its own standards. It's the perfect recipe for a third album: if you're familiar with the band and like most of what you heard, The Suburbs retains the good (melody, cohesion) and drops the bad (using everything short of a monkey's farts as instrumentation). Read between the lines: essentially, I enjoyed this album because it sounds more like Funeral and less like Neon Bible.

You've read enough at this point (and kudos for sticking it out 'til the end!), so I'll leave it at that. I avoided a great band for no particular good reason, but I finally got around to it and now all you cool people can quit harassing me to check them out. For anyone who still isn't familiar with Arcade Fire's work, I highly suggest giving it a listen -- even Neon Bible. It's important to know your history when considering how an artist arrives at a particular juncture in its career. Now, can someone please pass me a hip-hop album...good riddance!