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++ Needle Drops is now an occasional music column that a number of Neumu writers take turns writing. All columns prior to March 2004 were written by Philip Sherburne.

++ Recently ++

Tuesday, November 29, 2005 = The Stooges Unearthed (Again)

Tuesday, November 8, 2005 = Documenting Beulah And DCFC

Tuesday, November 1, 2005 = Out-Of-Control Rock 'N' Roll Is Alive And Well

Tuesday, October 25, 2005 = Just In Time For Halloween

Monday, October 3, 2005 = The Dandyesque Raunch Of Louis XI

Monday, August 15, 2005 = The Empire Blues

Tuesday, August 9, 2005 = David Howie's Sónar Diary

Monday, July 25, 2005 = Hot Sounds For Summertime

Monday, June 27, 2005 = Overcoming Writer's Block At Sónar 2005

Monday, June 4, 2005 = Cool New Sounds To Download Or Stream

++ Needle Drops Archives ++

View full list of Needle Drops articles...

Monday, December 20, 2004

+ Arcade Fire Ignite

By Jesse Zeifman (and Emmett Zeifman)

+ So, the question is, after writing about U2 — a band I've been involved with for 20 years, a band that's older than my younger brothers, a band that's matured, had its ups and downs, its epics and embarrassments, one that's paid its dues and that's now on its way to the fucking Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — can I love another great band, a band that's got energy to burn, a band that's barely had time for its ups, let alone any downs; a band who's responsible for a totally unique debut album, perhaps the album of the year; a band that put on a show at Bottom of the Hill (their first in San Francisco) that will go down as legendary at a club that's seen just about every "important" group grace its tiny stage; and a band whose members, when they're not live blowing minds, sit in class with one of said younger brothers at McGill University in Montreal?

The answer is, yes, I can love them. I do love them, and I barely know them.

But another question is why do Arcade Fire, who've been on the scene for what feels like mere weeks, kick so much ass?

Their debut full-length, Funeral (Merge, 2004), seemed to just come out of nowhere. I got an email about a month and a half ago from a friend who was so excited he sounded — in writing — like he was out of breath. He told me I had to get tickets to see this band, Arcade Fire. That I had to hear their album. That, as another new Canadian collective, they trumped Broken Social Scene. That they were the best thing he'd heard in a long time. That Funeral was an album he'd be playing for his as-yet-nonexistent children. That he hadn't been this excited to see a band play in years. I might be a sucker, but when someone (who has some semblance of a track record) is that excited about a band, I need to know why. I invested my eight bucks, 10 with a service charge, in a ticket to their show, and then, after sampling a couple tracks online, got their album.

++ Arcade Fire have, it turns out, been around for a couple years. They've been gigging in Montreal, getting it all down. They recorded an up-and-down EP. They're young! The lead singer, Win Butler, is 24, and his wife and musical partner, Régine Chassagne, just a couple years older. She escaped rebellion in Haiti, with her family, landing in Quebec. Butler arrived in Montreal from Texas, and at McGill via Sarah Lawrence.

Funeral, produced in the midst of losing several loved ones, arrives as a fully formed declaration. The band — a core of six to seven members live and a few more on record — sounds at times like early Bowie, like Talking Heads at their best, like the Polyphonic Spree, like they've heard everything around and decided they're going to do it better. I've read interviews with Butler where he says that, sure, they're into weird Czech rock and obscure folk records, that those sounds have been influences, but that, ultimately, Arcade Fire are a pop band.

That's the beauty of the program. "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" comes out of the gates already building. Like the music can't wait to begin. There's a little piano and some feedback in the distance, and then Butler begins to sing, accompanied by a steady bassline, and a beat that comes out of nowhere.

When he sings "You climb out the chimney and meet me in the middle, the middle of the town," you want to know where they're going, what they're up to.

The drums build, the guitar's there too, and wait, there's a xylophone, and it's not kitschy, and he sings, "You change all the lead sleepin' in my head to gold, as the day grows dim, I hear you sing a golden hymn, the song I've been trying to say." And you say to yourself, fuck yeah. There's something going on with these guys. And you wonder what's coming next. And then you have the joy of realizing that it only gets better.

The first track, at first, was almost an afterthought. Subtle, compared to the immediacy of "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)" which, in some ways, was the Talking Heads track I always prayed for. See, "Sugar on My Tongue" was the way Talking Heads introduced themselves and, with its surf-guitar bass and shimmering, almost harpsichord-like guitar, and David Byrne sounding pure, at the start, in 1975, it's close to a perfect pop song. But they were too smart for their own good. They wrote more classics ("Burning Down the House", "Once in a Lifetime", "Psycho Killer") and, much later, their friendliest anthem — "This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)" — but they were misunderstood. They were a punk band. They weren't going to give in. When you anticipated a chorus or a hook, more often than not, they went the other way. That's why lots of people respect Talking Heads, but not many of my contemporaries — those who purport to be music-heads, past, present, and future — love Talking Heads.

Now, making pop music isn't giving in. But, then, as far as cred went, it was. Talking Heads' uncompromising approach led to a lot of brilliant music that, for the most part, I can listen to in pieces. Not all at once, not over and over again, driving around town. (Although the reissue, The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads (Rhino, 2004), a compilation of live recordings circa 1977-1981, sounds as current as any of the myriad indie bands currently on the scene. It explains a lot. Trust me. And it is a great listen.)

++ But back to "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)." It begins with deep, almost tribal-sounding drums. And then the sharp plucking of a guitar. Not noodling. It's in motion. So are you. And then an accordion?!? And Butler's there again, singing Byrne-like, monotone, with purpose, momentum, through a hollow sounding mic, "Alexander, our older brother, set out for a great adventure," and you think, "Oh, how nice," and then he sings, "He tore our images out of his pictures," and then you wonder, "Where is this going?" And where it goes is the place I, at least, hoped for as an alternative reality for Talking Heads. The song gets big and frantic, and it rocks and it makes you tap your toes (if you're at your desk at work) or (if you're 20, and not at work) you dance around the house, but it moves and makes you move, too.

Other songs on the album start as one thing and end as another. "Une Année sans Lumiere" starts as classic rock — tight, controlled — and ends indie-rock sprawl — youthful indulgence, freedom! Wait, is "Lust for Life" in there somewhere? It's beautiful. Inspired. And, later, "Crown of Love" starts as a waltz, strings, solemn orchestration, and ends with those same strings becoming the roots of a disco throwdown matching anything that came out of that era. How did they just do that?

And "Wake Up," with all its orchestral glory, fits perfectly as a street-smart cousin to Polyphonic Spree's otherworldly innocence.

By the time you reach "Rebellion (Lies)" (which could have been the triumphant end, if not for the Björk-meets-Pixies majesty of "In the Backseat") you've been a lot of places, sung a lot of songs, marveled at how the hooks just keep coming, and you think, "Goddamn, that moved me!"

++ And then, last week, you realize their show's just around the corner. You paid 10 bucks for a ticket that, in the course of the hype building, the word spreading, the band called fire now on fire, is going for an utterly ridiculous hundred bucks or more. And, after thinking about selling those ducats, you think you have to see this for yourself. It'll be good, you hope, it might even be great, but it won't — can't — put you in that head space where you leave feeling a million feet tall, where you can grasp the stars, feeding them your energy, where the imprint of your jaw remains on some club floor, amongst the detritus, smiling forever after. And where it takes days to express what you've just experienced. Until the time you find the words, the experience remains a secret language shared only with those who were there with you. Your own alphabet, your own vocabulary.

Surely the Arcade Fire, a band who haven't even been around the block once yet, won't deliver anything near that.

Well, as soon as they take the stage, seven strong, all dressed in evening wear but for the guy who looks like an admiral, and rip into "Wake Up" in unison, it takes about two seconds for the chilly San Francisco hipsters to melt and then, as if it wasn't even a question, sing the rest of the show right along with the band.

They trade instruments, seamlessly. Wait, wasn't Win just on guitar? Regine's on drums now?!? They use walls and columns and ceiling pipes for percussion. Some sport racing helmets for the portions of the show so propulsive you feel like you're on your way to space. A marching-band drum appears, and it makes perfect sense. They have no rock-star pretense, but seem larger than life, able to deliver thrill after thrill. There's a 20-second break in the middle of "No Cars Go" (from their debut EP) — drums smashing, keys crying, bass loping — that might just be the most glorious swatch of pop orgasm I've ever heard. They elicit breathless calls — hoots, hollers, prayers, fuck-yeahs, I-love-yous — while the band catches its breath. Live, their songs are bigger, faster, stronger.

The recipe for success: Make a stew of all the best indie bands around — the ones with that unexplainable rock-star mojo. Sprinkle some of the Spree's live magic. Interpret some of the double-drum-kit mayhem of Manitoba's live set from a year ago. Add the accent of a little Godspeed or Mogwai wall of sound. Mix it all up. Then run it through a singular Wes Anderson filter — unrivaled attention to detail, their own look and style down cold — and you get two hours of triumph. And during the encore they even cover that perfect Talking Heads song, "This Must Be the Place," in an inspired, grabbing-the torch-as-their-own moment.

Everything's upside down. We leave the club, clothes soaked, minds dancing, in a state. Why do Arcade Fire kick so much ass?

That question has been kicking around now for some time. I might have a few answers, but I wonder, being 33 and ancient — I guess — what somebody like my brother Emmett, 20, their peer, classmate, and critic in his own right (check mcgilldaily.com) would have to say. So I ask him, "Why do Arcade Fire kick so much ass?" and he answers back in an email, in words I wish I could claim as my own:

"As the last strains of 'In the Backseat' are fading, I find myself with a problem. What can follow this album. Today it is the rollicking version of 'Tell Me Momma' that opens Dylan's Royal Albert Bootleg. Other times it's the first chords of Interpol's 'Untitled.' Or the epic sweep of 'Astral Weeks.' Or the haunting 'Gimme Shelter.' Or the tortured electronics of 'Everything in Its Right Place.' All open albums much like the one 'In the Backseat' closes. Albums that are fully realized, unique, compelling musical statements. Like it did with Interpol's Turn on the Bright Lights, or any debut album these days, the increasingly irrelevant right side of my brain wants to tell me that I'm wrong. That the simple lyrics and strangely straightforward emotion mean that Funeral lacks some necessary post-millennial stamp of artistic credibility. That the lead singer who used to hurry into my first year Russian Lit. class a half-hour late, a little hunched behind his straight dirty blond hair, can't really have produced an album as good as this one feels. That the band that tore through a sweaty set with their lame Björk imitation embarrassing herself behind the drums the night before their exams can't actually have it this figured out. And then I shut the right side up, turn the music up, and dance around my living room, like I did today, alone in the house on a sunny early afternoon.

++ "In the past few years I've fallen for The Strokes, for The Constantines, for Interpol, even for The Unicorns a little. They are all great bands, all bands that I'll stand by, but The Arcade Fire are different. You would never follow up The Strokes with Radiohead, The Constantines with Van, Interpol with Dylan, The Unicorns with The Stones. The Arcade Fire have a universal quality that escapes their contemporaries. The triumphant orchestral energy of Funeral can be at once touching and wildly fun. The album is its own genre, happily straddling the new wave pulse of 'Rebellion,' the shanty strum of 'Haiti,' the slow-build of 'Neighbourhood #1,' the insanity of 'Neighbourhood #3.' It is an album that should be too quirky to hold up to repeated listening, but does anyways, whether on a sunlit carpeted dance floor, or in a quiet chair bathed in the computer screen paper-writing glow.

"At the end of September, the band held their farewell to Montreal, before they left for New York and wound up on the cover of the Times' Arts Section. It was held in the Salvation Army Citadel: six, sometimes seven band members in black (save Regine in red), red paper lamps and umbrellas strewn across the stage, the massive white pipes of the organ providing the backdrop. It was a strange show: the twenty of our friends in the front row happily bobbed as they resequenced the album and the highlights from their EP that we'd all heard a hundred times before, but those in the pews seemed little moved. A week later, as The Constantines tore through one of the greatest displays of controlled mayhem I've ever seen, I asked my friend, the editor of the paper I was reviewing the show for, if I could say that they put on a better show than The Arcade Fire. She said no. Afterwards, there were just as few of us left in the empty venue. Someone put on Funeral and we stayed there for the entire album; dehydrated and drenched in sweat, we danced some more. When "Une Année sans Lumiere" broke, I was as excited as I had been at any point in the night. I realized that even if the band hadn't spoken to the dispassionate scenesters in the pews, even if the sound, standing with my chin on the stage, hadn't been great, The Arcade Fire, had, with that show, etched themselves into their album in a way I've never before experienced. The two were inseparable, the energy of the live show somehow transferred into every one of a thousand listens, every twist of 'Wake Up' that always brings a smile to my hips, even though I can see it coming a mile away. They are a band that has captured something indefinably original, and for that they cannot simply be the next big thing."

So, there you have it. One unbelievable band. A family. The past and the future. Two brothers. Time bends. Music unites. If you don't take it from me, take it from the kids.

[P.S. To any label reps, bands, musicians, PR people: I'm looking for more music to write about in 'Needle Drops.' If you have something you think I should hear, please email me Thanks. And happy holidays.]


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