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Something Old, Something New, Two Reviews for the Price of One: Wolf Parade and Arcade Fire

Written by Nick Leitzke

2004 and 2005 were big years for music. Both years saw the release of any number of albums that I return to over and over again. I try not to let my musical tastes be defined by a few albums or a few bands, but it’s hard to deny that the music released in 2004 and 2005 left a lasting imprint on that first decade of the twenty-first century. Not the least of these albums are ‘Funeral’ by Arcade Fire and ‘Apologies to the Queen Mary’ by Wolf Parade. They’re the kind of albums I look back on and remember where I was the first time I listened to them. When I listen to them now I still have moments where I hear a new phrase, be it lyrically or musically, and I get goose bumps as though I’m hearing it for the first time. And they’re the kind of albums that a single live performance can amplify one hundred times.

The problem with albums like these is that everything Wolf Parade and Arcade Fire do afterward will be compared to these debut successes. If someone’s first impression is a homerun, everything else that band does has to live up to or exceed that initial impression. Albums like these become the high water mark. It’s an unfair standard to hold someone to, but it’s the way the art world works. I try my best not to live by that standard, but with albums like these you’re almost afraid of what the follow-up will sound like. Will they be able to live up? In the end it doesn’t matter because the past is the past and you have to accept it. Five or six years down the road is a long time, and you are not the only thing that has changed. That being said, Wolf Parade and Arcade Fire have released albums worthy of attention this summer, and they both deserve a lot of praise.

‘Apologies to the Queen Mary’ was one of those albums that I knew right away I loved. The first time I listened to “I’ll Believe In Anything” I listened to it two or three times before I could let the rest of the album go. The only other song that’s done that to me is “Modern Girl” by Sleater-Kinney, but I digress. It was obvious listening to ‘Apologies to the Queen Mary’ that Wolf Parade is a collective with two distinct creative voices in Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner. This became even more obvious in subsequent years with the success of their respective side projects, Sunset Rubdown and the Handsome Furs. Early in Wolf Parade’s life that distinction was almost a dichotomy, as though the voices of Krug and Boeckner fought each other and drew their strength the way complimentary colors fuel their opposite. I even had friends who split themselves into opposing camps – the Krug side and the Boeckner side. I’ll admit I leaned towards Krug (see my love of Sunset Rubdown), but I loved everything about ‘Apologies to the Queen Mary.’ This was an album that lived in my car for weeks, that accompanied me to the laundromat or to the garage waiting room, and I learned to love every song.

In 2008 Wolf Parade released ‘At Mount Zoomer,’ which admittedly was not ‘Apologies to the Queen Mary’ but by no means did it fail. I knew going into it that three years had passed, and I like ‘At Mount Zoomer.’ Krug and Boeckner had married their dichotomous sounds into one entity, and the music benefited. ‘At Mount Zoomer’ was not a bad album, but it was not one of my favorites of 2008. I don’t think it even made my top ten. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. I liked everything Wolf Parade did with it. I liked that they made an investment in their future. Listening to ‘At Mount Zoomer’ I could tell this was a stronger band, a more unified band. The album itself didn’t have quite the staying power that ‘Apologies to the Queen Mary’ had, and I delegated it to iTunes rotation rather than popping it in the CD player during downtime or on snow days. It was time to wait and see what Wolf Parade did next.

Now it is 2010, and on June 29 Wolf Parade released ‘Expo 86.’ Whatever Krug and Boeckner did to marry their sounds has blossomed into something extraordinary. ‘Expo 86’ doesn’t wait to get going. The first track, “Cloud Shadow On the Mountain,” kicks in without hesitation, and that’s the attitude Wolf Parade create with ‘Expo 86.’ This is an album to be listened to loud. ‘Expo 86’ is a voyage of highly danceable synth rock, and it is an album I want to hear performed live. It’s as though Wolf Parade cares. They care enough to make an album so infectious and so listenable that you want to hear it reverberate in an auditorium. You want this music to vibrate through every cubic inch of your body because listening to it on a stereo isn’t enough. Lyrically I need to sit with ‘Expo 86’ a while longer, but in “Two Men In New Tuxedos” Spencer Krug addresses the issue of dichotomy with Dan Boeckner. “You’ve got the promise that I gave you,” Krug says. “You’ve got the strongest one/ We are two oxen under one whip/ We are two men in new tuxedos/ And we are ready to jump from behind the wall.” Anyone who thought Wolf Parade could never surpass the high water mark of ‘Apologies to the Queen Mary’ can go to hell. Living up to the past doesn’t matter. ‘Expo 86’ is the present and I’ll listen this stupid thing to death.

Where ‘Expo 86’ is Wolf Parade at their infectious best (so far), Arcade Fire released an album last week that is nearly on the opposite end of the spectrum. This is going to work against them, and I think that’s entirely unfair. Let’s get the reminiscing out of the way right now. ‘Funeral’ is a modern classic. Enough has been said about ‘Funeral’ by too many people since it converted so many in 2004. One of the things I love bout Arcade Fire is that their albums make me sit for a moment after I listen to them. I’m not immediately blown away by their albums, but the first time I listened to ‘Funeral’ I knew it would be something I loved. There was enough happening on ‘Funeral’ that I had to sit with it and experience it two or three more times, and I did, and two or three listens later I was looking up the French translation for those lines in “Une Anee Sans Lumiere” and “Haiti,” driving with the windows down and screaming along with “Wake Up,” and thinking “I carved your name across my eyelids/ You pray for rain, I pray for blindness” was the only line in any song that ever hit the heartbreak nail on the head. And then reality quickly sunk in. After enough listens and loving ‘Funeral’ as much as I did, I realized there would be a follow-up album.

‘Neon Bible’ is a great album. It’s not ‘Funeral.’ Arcade Fire will never release ‘Funeral’ again. If they do release ‘Funeral’ again, they are doing everything wrong. I don’t want Arcade Fire to repeat themselves. They are better than that. They are more creative than that and they have so much more to say. If you’re expecting everything Arcade Fire does from now until the end of time to sound like “Rebellion (Lies),” you can keep waiting while the rest of us move on. ‘Neon Bible’ was an outstanding follow-up to ‘Funeral,’ another one of those albums I knew I would love after two or three listens, and I did. I was lucky enough to see Arcade Fire three years ago at DAR Constitution Hall, and it made ‘Neon Bible’ that much more memorable. Too many people didn’t like ‘Neon Bible,’ or they say the same thing, that it took them a while to get over ‘Funeral’ and give ‘Neon Bible’ a chance, but it will never live up to ‘Funeral.’ An outlook like that is symptomatic of a serious case of tunnel vision. With an outlook like that you’ll never fully appreciate Arcade Fire’s third album, ‘The Suburbs.’

Last week (on August 3) Arcade Fire released ‘The Suburbs.’ Already people are writing it off as a failure. I’ve heard it called repetitive. I’ve heard it called a disappointment. I’ve heard it called simply ‘meh.’ What seems to be the common factor among negative reviewers is the lack of a catchy tune on ‘The Suburbs,’ that ‘The Suburbs’ has good lyrics but you can’t dance to it. I don’t think dancing is the point here.

As with ‘Funeral’ and ‘Neon Bible’ I was not immediately drawn into ‘The Suburbs,’ but the difference between ‘The Suburbs’ and its predecessors is that when ‘The Suburbs’ ended I didn’t just sit for a moment. I found myself locked in a lengthy philosophical analysis of American quality of life. ‘The Suburbs’ is an album very much of its time. It is an album about economics, about struggle. ‘The Suburbs’ is an album about coming home after escaping from the prison of youth and realizing home is even worse now than it was ten years ago, but you wish with all your might that it was still ten years ago and you were locked in that old prison of youth.

‘The Suburbs’ is not a musically daring album, but it doesn’t need to be. The strength here is in the lyrics. In the title track’s opening lines Win Butler captures every kid’s desire to escape, “In the suburbs I learned to drive and you told me we’d never survive/ Grab your mother’s keys, we’re leaving.” What our parents built meant nothing to us at the time, but now that it’s falling apart we find ourselves falling apart vicariously. “So can you understand why I want a daughter while I’m still young/ I want to hold her hand and show her some beauty before all this damage is done.” This album is all about watching the markets crash, running through wilderness streets and searching vainly for an echo, folding your arms tight in youthful defiance without realizing you can’t lift yourself up with folded arms. Much of ‘The Suburbs’ is about driving, about learning to drive and driving through the sprawl as though the simple act of driving is enough to break free. Sprawl is the key word here.

The best track for me is “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” “Living in the sprawl, the dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains/ And there’s no end in sight.” Go for a drive today, tonight. Drive to the fringes of urban sprawl. Or just drive to the suburbs and see what it’s really like – all the shopping plazas full of empty storefronts and beyond them the new shopping plazas where new stores will be dead within five years, only to have even more shopping plazas built beyond them. Go for a drive through economic low tide and tell me it’s not the most depressing thing you’ve ever seen. People grow up in the sprawl and want to get the hell out. Yes, ‘The Suburbs’ can be repetitive at times, but this is the sprawl. This is the repetition of dead shopping malls in the suburbs. I think people don’t like ‘The Suburbs’ because it hits too close to home. By no means is ‘The Suburbs’ the catchiest album of 2010, but I would call it the most thoughtful. I don’t think I’ve ever come across an album that has me wanting to write a forty page essay. I probably could write a forty page essay about Arcade Fire, but I’ve already written enough (for now).

Like Wolf Parade, a fellow Montreal band that found success in the early 2000’s, Arcade Fire have proven they don’t need to live up to a meaningless high water mark. They know we are living in the sprawl. Get up and dance if you want, but you can’t deny this is a new wasteland. Maybe dancing to Wolf Parade is the only way to keep our sanity when faced with all the dead things left in the recession’s wake.

Posted by admin   @   13 August 2010

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