Arts & Entertainment
3 min

CD reviews: Arcade Fire & Air

Fireworks & stale air

The following lyrics are from the title track of Arcade Fire’s second album Neon Bible. They give you a solid idea of what you’re in for in this lovely follow-up to their brilliant 2004 album Funeral. “A vial of hope and a vial of pain/ In the light they both looked the same/ Poured them out on into the world/ On every boy and every girl.”

The band’s seven members are a dark, quirky group of individuals. They are also a profoundly relatable bunch. Lead vocalist Win Butler sings about intimate private thoughts, of the insecure, frustrated places our minds can take us. The group’s lyrics (written by all members) have a very child-like melancholy, an adolescence-working-overtime quality.

The quiet longing gets swept up with dynamic strings, unbridled guitars and ultra-dramatic organs. The production is always extremely intense and grand, seemingly pushing an introspective Butler to scream his frustrations like a banshee. Geeky gospel, if you will.

In fact, the album was mostly recorded in the St James Anglican Church in Bedford, Quebec and the Église St Jean Baptiste in Montreal. There are gospel singers accompanying the superb orchestral arrangements by band member Regine Chassagne and Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett. It’s all very similar to Funeral.

But where Funeral was inspired by the raw edginess of the earlier works of The Talking Heads and Bowie, Neon Bible (taken from the title of cult author John Kennedy Toole’s first novel) has more of a kinship to Bruce Springsteen and the mighty Echo And The Bunnymen (who seem to be a big influence on a lot of bands lately).

“Windowsill” is a compelling song conveying Butler’s pain, his disdain for America (he’s a US citizen who found his home in Montreal), the war and media oversaturation. But he sings it all in a lovely abandoned way. He’s like a sullen teenager wanting to leave home, travel and go to university — untie the apron strings. He’s a little scared and a little pissed. The emotions can be taken a zillion ways; the words are open to interpretation.

“Cause the tide is high/ And it’s rising still/ And I don’t wanna see it at my windowsill,” Butler sings. “MTV, what have you done to me?/ Save my soul/ Set me free.”

Some may complain that there’s nothing really new going on, and they may be right. But when you hear something as moving as “Intervention,” with its weirdly spooky Phantom Of The Opera organ intro and the gorgeous melody (you’ll be goosepimply all over), you have to strip that complaint away. There’s way too much talent going on here. You can’t dismiss it. And yes, this will be their Joshua Tree. This is the album that will make this indie favourite a sold-out stadium draw. No fan ever likes that.

They say you can never go back. The French band Air has gone back… to their 1998 debut Moon Safari.

I’ve always loved Air. I find so much lounge/cocktail music a thumping bore but I always felt that these guys (members JB Dunckel and Nicolas Godin) gave the genre they helped create an edge. It’s all fluttery and fey yet there are always skeletons in their musical closet. They have David Lynch-like darkness in the arrangements. Like the early works of performance artist Laurie Anderson, Dunckel and Godin manage to make pop out of the surreal.

Pocket Symphony is their latest album and after 2004’s inventive and joyously sinister Talkie Walkie. I expected more. The album regresses to the safety of Moon Safari’s more pleasing, martini-sipping vibe. Even well-chosen guest vocalists Jarvis Cocker (Pulp) and Neil Hannon (The Divine Comedy) can’t breathe life into this. There’s way too much fluff and silliness going on.

Yes, it’s listenable but it’s as safe as a Windham Hill sampler (New Age compilations from the late 1980s and early ’90s). This is the kind of nonthreatening stuff that people talk about when they say, “Oh, it’s great to read by,” or “It’s like classical music; it’s soooo soothing.”

“Napalm Love” is a good example of what’s wrong with this album. The synthesizers and drum machines don’t really go anywhere. They stay put. There are no surprises to be had. The great thing about Talkie Walkie is that it had magic in the arrangements. It was full of sound sensations. Pocket Symphony (love this title, so modern, so right) just happily glides along like Paris Hilton’s vacant poses for the zillions of cameras that follow her every hollow, empty move.

“I’m burning my love/ I’m burning alive,” sing the boys, “Burning alive/ Down to the ground.”

They sing their uninspired lyrics in soft hushed tones. They might very well have phoned this album in.