at the Empty Bottle, Fri 11/26
I know I'm not the only one to wonder this past year whether pundits provide any benefit whatsoever to society. It certainly seems that the chattering classes--who filter and process every thought and expression and piece of information over and over again, lest actual people come to their own conclusions--are doing more harm than good. When I visited the ruins of the World Trade Center in September 2001, they hit me totally differently in person than they had on TV, bracketed by familiar logos and accompanied by sententious commentary. John Kerry makes a different impression in the flesh than he does on the tube; so does Ozzy Osbourne. But I'm wearing my own pundit hat now--why should you believe me, instead of seeing for yourself?
Just about everyone in this business occasionally indulges in self-aggrandizing fantasy: I'm a pearl diver among the bottom-feeders, we tell ourselves, secretly. I'm the only one who really cares about the truth, and I can bring it to light, even through all the mud these other idiots are stirring up. This encourages many of us to play the contrarian, hoping to expose someone else's find as a fake--and the more unanimously the conventional wisdom ratifies the value of a claim, the more zealously we try to scrub away its patina of legitimacy. Sometimes I'm glad to be in the disreputable subprofession of music writing, where in the final analysis it doesn't matter much if I've got my fingers around a gem or a wad of muck.
Nothing sets off the contrarian impulse quite like a frantic buzz around a band that's only just released its first proper record. The Arcade Fire put out Funeral (Merge) in September, and already the Montreal-based group has amassed an impressive collection of press-kit hyperbole: in the Globe and Mail Robert Everett-Green opined, "It takes a band like Arcade Fire to remind you that we are all custodians of our innocence and that we let it die at our peril." The band's word-of-mouth ground game is even more spectacular: the Empty Bottle show I saw last Friday, which sold out weeks ago, was their second in Chicago in two days--and the first, at the Logan Square Auditorium on Thanksgiving night, drew a crowd of more than 800 despite the holiday.
So I have to admit that the first time I listened to Funeral I was in full debunking mode, like Houdini running a self-styled medium through his paces. But then I really heard the tapping on the table and the whispering of the spirits, and I couldn't figure out how the Arcade Fire was faking it. And they had to be faking it--the flawless debut album is one of the primary myths of rock 'n' roll, and in the whole history of the genre there have been only a handful. Most of the time an apparently brilliant first record turns out to be a carefully staged dramatic entrance by a band without the depth to follow it up.
Funeral displays a richness of imagination, though, that quickly persuaded me the Arcade Fire is playing with more than smoke and mirrors. The music is swooningly romantic but sleek and aerodynamic, lush without being fussy or baroque: it's part early U2 and a bit of Oasis, with some of the Polyphonic Spree's commitment to inspirational sounds (as well as to social responsibility, likewise expressed by the employment of as many musicians as possible--Funeral uses 14 in all, including an auxiliary string section, a horn player, and a harpist). There are lots of layers here--the six proper members of the band play, on average, four instruments apiece, and augment the usual rock armamentarium with accordion, xylophone, upright bass, and recorder--but not a single part ever feels out of place. I imagine there's a lot more where this came from--I don't see a pipe organ in the credits list, anyway, so the band's nowhere near the bottom of the barrel.
The music press has a lot to chew on here as well: the Arcade Fire's bio ought to keep providing new story angles for at least another couple years. The band's fronted by newlyweds Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, who married last summer, and Funeral got its name because three close relatives of band members died either just before or during the production of the album. Even Chassagne's parents are a good source of ink: they lived in Haiti and fled Papa Doc Duvalier's regime in the 60s. "Haiti," the song their daughter wrote to honor that history, is a vertiginous mix of bouncy, bittersweet cabaret pop, kittenish vocals, and lyrics (largely en francais) about unmarked graves and lost children.
At the Bottle show, the band was stripped down, at least relative to the album lineup--just the six regular members and a violinist--but that was enough to sketch out most of the record's multifarious arrangements. From time to time somebody would get the urge to drum on the ceiling with a stray pair of sticks, and a football helmet made the rounds onstage, first on one head, then another. Any of the players could take a breather without disrupting the set, whether he wanted to dry his sweat-slippery hands, disappear into the audience for a little while, or just lean on a bandmate as if the music had made him too drunk to stand. The audience knew all the words to all the songs--they even mouthed the French. They doubled the backup singers' bits and came down on point on every line and beat as if they'd had a hand in writing the music themselves.
The drawn-out intros, the soaring choruses, the mighty riffs and chipper chords falling in to underline the melodies, the sweeping accordion and violin figures pointing the way like God (or Adam) on the Sistine Chapel ceiling--I'll concede that all of this might seem like a little much. Nobody trying so hard could possibly mean it, right? All I can say is that if the Arcade Fire was faking that urgency and emotion, they managed to hoodwink a few hundred people for the duration of the show. The Bottle crowd was completely won over. To pick just one example, they fell rapturously silent for the quiet, tranced-out intro to "Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)"--and I mean the whole crowd, not just the superfans up front. It's been a while since I've seen so many people hanging on nearly every note, responding to each new sound physically; typically I run into that at metal shows, if at all. But the Arcade Fire wasn't stirring people up with aggression or anger--the only violence done to anyone, as far as I could see, was that a few radiant fans inadvertently stepped on some toes while jumping joyously up and down. Even more remarkable was the absence of hipster diffidence, of cool cats and kitties, arms folded, holding up the walls. Everyone seemed to have given themselves over to sugary sonic joy, and the band fed off that surrender until the show felt like an Orange Sunshine orgy of pop love. Afterward I was glad to spot one of the bar circuit's regular tamale guys making his rounds. As much as I'd enjoyed all that sweetness, I wanted something else on my palate.
Even if they never make another record, I suspect that the Arcade Fire's place in history is assured already--at least among folks with good memories. The band might not end up with an entry in the right reference books or on the right music sites, and maybe nobody will put out a collectors' edition of Funeral in 10 or 20 years. But I predict that the secular gospel number "Crown of Love" will still be showing up on the veiled-message mixes that music-obsessed kids make for their friends and lovers, no matter what newfangled format they're using by then. Or maybe they'll pick "Rebellion (Lies)," with its hopping bass-riff intro that reminds me a bit of the Soft Boys' "Underwater Moonlight," or "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)," with its aching cry of "Yeah, a tunnel from my window to yours."
It's more likely, of course, that the Arcade Fire will make another record, if not many. The backlash in the press will start soon--hell, you could argue that it already has, given that I picked up Funeral hoping to take it apart. The band will ride it out, perhaps reevaluating itself and becoming a little more self-conscious in the process. Some pundits will see this as an improvement, and maybe it will be. But no matter what happens, I can say one thing for sure: you'll never know how you really feel about this music unless you go see it for yourself.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.