Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Arcade Fire EP (2003)


I was something of a latecomer on Arcade Fire. It seems sort of weird now, but I heard Neon Bible about a year after its release and only got around to Funeral at the very end of the decade. I admire the band very much and love all three of their albums, but I'd be lying if I said I felt a really deep connection to them -- if my reaction to news of their pending fourth album was much more than "oh cool, I bet that will be good." I think they would have loomed larger for me as a younger man -- not that they're unsophisticated, but the bluster and urgency and all that mattered a bit more to me as an obsessive U2 fan in high school. At certain moments, though -- "Windowsill," "Haiti," "Intervention," "Sprawl II," and most of their live performances that I've seen on Youtube -- I feel a certain electricity and for a few fleeting seconds I completely get it, and in those brief moments all the intellectual stuff and critical faculties are gone and I just feel the fist-pumping glee and catharsis of it all. They are perhaps the only band capable of seeming periodically like The One and Only Band, if you know what I mean.

Despite not being particularly good, the band's debut EP -- which I've just heard this month for the first time -- is actually another of those moments, but for a completely different reason. Hearing it has led me to want to reconsider carefully my reasons for not being absolutely agog over their work in general, because this flawed, slightly goofy and tentative EP gives the lie if nothing else to any question that Arcade Fire do not fully believe in all the Spectorian pyrotechnics and blissful overrangements that characterize the work on their albums. Even if it sounds alternately like U2's barely-finished October and an atypically macho Flying Nun release, Arcade Fire leaves little doubt on one point: this band's music is "big" by design. With full instrumentation -- typically eccentric: banjos, accordions, yelling, chanting, things to slap and strike as in the overzealous pow wow in some elementary school music class -- and fuller enthusiasm but barest production, this seven-track EP melts the band's dynamic down to its essence.

To some ears, it'll remain the best thing ever attached to them; their virtues emerge fully formed with but two exceptions -- Win Butler's voice, never exactly an instrument of unfaltering grace, is weak and untested here; and we must remember that Funeral and Neon Bible felt immediate because hi-fidelity, full-blown production is so naturally suited to the group's songs. But those songs are already driving and earnest, if derivative, and demanding of constant attention. The sad lullaby that opens the record and the bad twang ("your... father was... a perrrr-vert") that end it are its sole notes of mild ambivalence. As for the rest, its compressed but unrestrained attachment to grandiosity quickly calls the early Replacements to mind. Except, you know, they didn't have a Björk soundalike, a nice rolling piano, or a bassline like the one that lifts up the ground on "I'm Sleeping in a Submarine."

Always wide-eyed and impulsive, the band's core form here is a revealing thing indeed. They were already business-savvy grownups in 2003, but they were seriously releasing songs called "The Woodland National Anthem" and coming off like adorably communal fantasy geeks hanging in the living room, Mom just behind the door with lemonade and marshmallow squares. There's even emo! Belted out with aplomb, of course. The ground-level honesty and optimism here is actually a mark of directness that, especially on a confessional like "My Heart Is an Apple" (god, these song titles), signify the most emotionally fragile material the band would emit until 2010's The Suburbs (itself forecasted here by a line in "Vampire / Forest Fire" about living there). And as if to prove the point that this group needed only distribution and a nice glittery studio to blow up properly, we get an early take on "No Cars Go" that comes off like a strange hybrid of OMD and Spandau Ballet, attempting but not really achieving the march-to-the-capitol power of the Neon Bible version. For some that'll make it worse, for others better, but no one except the most hardened cynic about this remarkable band will dispute that it's at least interesting. If you like their subsequent work at all, you should really hear this record if you haven't already.

Neon Bible (2007)
The Suburbs (2010)

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