Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Released March 3rd, 2007 on Merge Records
Rock ‘n’ roll is shot through with instances of the Difficult Second Album. A band makes it big, often by surprise, with a debut album that resonates with the masses. The band then tours like mad, builds up a huge amount of hype, and is suddenly faced with the prospect of having to follow up that glorious debut with something that keeps the momentum going. James Hetfield once said “you have 18 years to write your first album, and six months to write the second,” and it’s uncomfortably true. Metallica themselves made it through okay, releasing a second album that was even better than their debut; many other bands have fallen by the wayside by doing the exact opposite. Often, bands will either release an album that completely falls flat (let’s talk about Marcy Playground some more) or an album that rehashes the first with diminishing results (hello Cloud Nothings). The hype and pressure combine to completely wreck a band in the process of trying to prove that they’re more than just a flash in the pan.
So, Arcade Fire, Greatest Band Of Their Generation. Funeral was huge when it came out in 2004. I wept – literally wept – when I first heard “Neighbourhoods #1 (Tunnels)”. There was a choral nature to the album that struck everyone that listened to it. It was exactly as it appeared at first blush – the sound of a group of people working out their grief through music that, instead of wallowing in misery, affirmed the beauty and the inherent goodness of life. If you held a gun to my head, Funeral would be my choice for the greatest album ever recorded. Hell, you wouldn’t even have to point a gun at my head. You could just point. You could ask. You could be in the same room as me. I could walk into the room you were in, and I’d tell you the same. It would get annoying.
How to follow it up, though? The gap between 2004 and 2007 was a long one and the hipsters were waiting for the second Arcade Fire with knives sharpened over and over again. When it came out, they leapt on it, ready with accusations: “Ugh, earnest lyrics and politics, how pretentious” and “OMG, it’s so Bruce Springsteen, how gauche” (a line Rolling Stone would take with The Suburbs, with lumbering Boomer efficiency). Neon Bible shrugs both accusations off, however. To the first, it adopts a certain fatalism with regard to its apocalyptic subject matter. In 2006-2007, war fatigue had set in across the Western world. Bush was in the middle of his Difficult Second Term, and the band’s own home country was engulfed in economic restructuring and political instability. The crash was still a year off, but the signs of the gathering storm were everywhere. “Keep The Car Running” wasn’t just paranoia; in 2007, there was a palpable sense that there was something coming, and it was coming in hard. Who’s to say that, ten years later, the song isn’t even more viscerally relevant: disappearing from friends and family, gone into the night. The knock at 4 AM. The same place animals go when they die. Keep one eye to the door, listen out for the neighbours, and the stairs. Keep the car running.
There’s that same heady weight to all of these songs. “Black Mirror” (with that soulful twisting French line that seems to flow out of Regine Chassande like fine chocolate) walks out to the ocean and is greeted with an implacable and ancient force that is as humbling to the human psyche as the stars. The vast, impersonal ocean crops up again and again throughout the album. “Black Wave / Bad Vibrations” and “Ocean Of Noise” both tread the same waters, wondering what good human fuckery is in the face of a monolithic force that will always override them without thought or care. “Neon Bible” and “Intervention” both tackle the grim joy of the Christianity of city missions and the inherent hypocrisy embedded in devout evangelical religion. “(Antichrist Television Blues)” furthers this exploration by positing Joe Simpson, father of Jessica, imploring God to treat Joe as his mouthpiece and show His glory by selling his daughter to the entertainment machine “to show the world what you’re doing to me”. “Windowsill” turns away from that same entertainment machine, and from it’s dread implication, Pax Americana. “I don’t want to live in my father’s house no more” he sings, “I don’t want to live in America no more.” “Windowsill” is like “Keep The Car Running” in that it knows that something is coming. Conor Oberst once sang “I Don’t Know When But A Day’s Gonna Come” and all three know that to be true. “World War III, when are you coming for me?” Win Butler sings, and it’s a question that can still be asked a decade on. “No Cars Go” is his answer to all of the above: fuck it, let’s just leave. We’ll find a place where this death trap we’ve created and christened as The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, Western Civilization can’t find us. No planes no trains no automobiles. No snowmobiles and no skis. No bosses, no bankers, no landlords. “My Body Is A Cage” ends on a more intimate note, something more like what “Crown Of Love” was on Funeral; if you’ve never seen the spaghetti western mash-up video for it, you should look that up right now.
Where the hipsters saw pretension, there actually exists unvarnished emotion and the sound of a band tapping into the zeitgeist. The second accusation is much easier to dismiss. Who doesn’t want to sound like Bruce Springsteen? I mean, he’s the Boss. Plus, this cacophony of instrumentation – these guitars, these church organs, violins, clarinets, keyboards, drums, synthesizers, these massed and stacked and soaring vocals – conjures up all of the power that was latent in the Boss’ music in the 1970s and fills it with glorious noise. When that wall of organ crashes over you (like an ocean wave) on “My Body Is A Cage”, it is at once utterly obliterating and more apocalyptic than even Bruce “There’s no more jobs anymore on account of the economy” Springsteen could have summoned up by 1980. Win Butler and Co. are earnest and straight-talking, up to a point, but their flair for the dramatic is unmatched in any other band, contemporary or classic.
Neon Bible is often the overlooked album in the Arcade Fire canon. Funeral was the critical bombshell; The Suburbs was the mainstream hit; Reflektor was the Defiant Artistic Statement. Neon Bible, meanwhile, doesn’t have an ethos-defining peg to hang from – but it might be their most consistent album, and it hits with the implacable force of a tsunami.
Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
Released May 13th, 2016
During the wild, chaotic run-up to the release of The Life Of Pablo, Kanye West announced that it would be a “gospel album”, inspired by the African-American tradition of blending worship in church with soaring choral music that God himself might hear. Despite the label, the only gospel moments on the album were the admittedly brilliant opener “Ultralight Beam” and “Lowlight”, an intro to the more traditional (and Young Thug guesting) “Highlight”.
Fellow Chicago musician Chance The Rapper was on the former, and it’s Chance The Rapper that is now bringing out what ‘Ye promised: a full-on gospel hip hop record, embracing the worldliness of life in often-violent Chicago, and simultaneously the glory and life guide of his religion. Rather than the lysergic uncertainty of his breakthrough Acid Rap, Coloring Book finds a man confident in his faith and in sorrow for his city and his people. “Blessings (Reprise)” has him saying “They never seen a rapper practice modesty, I never practice, I only perform”, and this serves as a good overarching theme for the record as a whole. It’s an album that stands in direct contrast to the nihilistic, violent drill scene that Chicago is known for; rather than a finger-waving sermon, though, tracks like “Summer Friends” seem to offer a prayer for those caught up in the summertime violence that is endemic to the drug and gang-ridden city streets. The problem with overtly “Christian” artists is that the music often seems to take a backseat to the message; they’re so concerned with connecting with “the kids” that they don’t take the time to actually figure out what makes the secular music so appealing in the first place. Chance succeeds exactly where “Christian rap” or “Christian rock” fails: he lets his faith infuse his music, rather than supersede it. He’s intensely relatable, even when you’re outside of the continuum of his experience.
Even better in this day and age, Chance is staunchly independent. He doesn’t need a label, and he doesn’t need to sell his album just to fulfill label quotas. Coloring Book is free, and as such it’s technically classified as a mixtape. It’s a subject he addresses on “No Problem” with Lil’ Wayne (no stranger to label problems himself) and “Mixtape” (with ultra-prolific fellow mixtaper Young Thug), but it’s also a subject he brought up originally on “Ultralight Beam”: “He said let’s do a good ass job with Chance 3 / I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy / Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard / That there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet”. Mixtapes are ineligible for Grammys, and if there’s an album that deserves a Grammy it’s Coloring Book – a fact that perhaps led Chance to release it on DatPiff and then shortly after make it a short-term iTunes exclusive. Nonwithstanding whether having it on a paid streaming service makes it “for sale”, Chance’s Twitter fans ended up tweeting all of the lyrics to Coloring Book. They’re a loyal group and Chance is the sort of artist to reward them for their loyalty with both quality and (between his own work, his guest spots, and his gig fronting Chicago experimental pop group The Social Experiment) quantity.
Chance deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the other giants of modern hip hop – your Weezys, Drizzys, Yeezys, K. Dots, et al. He’s got a killer flow, has a Kendrick-like appreciation for intricate wordplay, and has the ability to ride a vibe for all it’s worth better than pretty much anyone else. In a genre dominated by a careful balance between artistry and crass mercenary sales grubbing, Chance takes the left hand path and is all the better for it.
AND THE REST…
Always Strive And Prosper
04/22/2016 on Polo Grounds Music
The perennial also-ran to A$AP Rocky comes into his own with a solid album of hard-hitting verses backed with a staggering amount of high-profile guest spots.
04/22/2016 on Pink Flag Records
Eight songs from 2015’s Wire record were redone for this mini-LP. As it turns out, the pioneers of jittery indie rock fall apart when they try to hold themselves still even for a moment.
04/22/2016 on Carpark Records
Toronto has a reputation for noisy rock ‘n’ roll – emphasis on the noise part. In the grand tradition of METZ, Fucked Up, et al. comes Greys, who pile noisy parts on top of each other until they approximate songs. While their sound has expanded somewhat from their debut, it’s still fairly limited in terms of it’s overall impact. Still, for something to crank up to ten and annoy the neighbours with, you could do worse.
Plants And Animals
Waltzed In From The Rumbling
04/29/2016 on Secret City Records
A pleasant surprise from a band that’s been very hit and miss since their stellar debut, Parc Avenue. Strives less for radio play than it does for campfire grit.
Paging Mr. Proust
The veteran alt-country band has lost quite a bit of oomph over the years, and their ninth album can’t hold a candle to their earlier career. Decent enough stuff, but unexceptional.
The standard-bearers for the modern Riot Grrl movement get a little slicker and a bit more commercial on their third album. It works, but I miss the fireworks and slashing of old. At least the punk rock feminist righteousness is still intact.
Special Friday Edition!
Friday is the day on /r/music where the mods like to turn off the ability to post YouTube videos in the hopes of the subreddit actually becoming one for music discussion and not, say, where Reddit likes to dump it’s garbage fire taste in music. Ha. Ha ha. Well, they try, that’s the important thing.
If you tuned in yesterday, you’ll get the basic gist: I take a look at the top ten songs posted on /r/music in the last 24 hours and tell you how terrible Reddit’s taste in music is. In much rarer occasions, I’ll tell you where they get it right. Fridays will be fun because of the phenomenon mentioned above: it’s going to be a collection of those songs with the staying power to make it through the discussion posts.
Also, for the record, no I don’t plan on this being an everyday thing, but I would like it to be an everyday I can manage it thing.
June 2nd, 2016 (12:30 PM) to June 3rd, 2016 (12:30 PM)
#1: Mr. Bungle – “Air Conditioned Nightmare”
Reddit manages to kick it off with something weird and cool, courtesy of Mike “Weird and Cool” Patton. Goes through four different changes in tone and structure, each completely different than the one before. In anyone else’s hands, it would be a gigantic mess, but Mike Patton isn’t anyone else.
#2: Dinosaur Jr. – “Feel The Pain”
Sirius XMU’s favourite Dinosaur, Jr track is also Reddit’s most commonly posted DJ song. Thankfully it never gets old, although I’ve heard it three times today between the radio and this particular set. Two good tracks in a row, Reddit, maybe Fridays are your thing.
#3: Beck – “Wow”
Ah, the new Beck track. The one that starts off like a generic hip hop beat, or maybe something like what Beyonce might have rejected for her self-titled 2013 album. Then Beck manages to bull through it in a display of sheer Beck-ness. Still, it feels a little empty and it’s not until 2/3 of the way through that Beck lets his freak flag fly in even a limited fashion. Honestly it feels a little like Beck chasing a hit and I’m not sure how I feel about that. Holding out opinions for the album, we’ll see.
#4: The Cult – “Love Removal Machine”
The Cult were an Eighties goth band that scored some hits when they decided to be an AC/DC tribute band instead. My mom knew the lead singer in high school at one point, to no one’s surprise he was a dick. Trust Reddit to go ga-ga for generic hard rock because “it has guitars”.
#5: A Day To Remember – “Bad Vibrations”
Why do metalcore bands have such fucking awful band names? Why do metalcore bands all recycle the same damn low-end chugging? Why do metalcore bands mistake sung choruses for depth? Why do metalcore bands insist on breakdowns that are cheesier than a Wisconsin hamburger?
Anyway, you can always tell when the pre-teens are posting, because there will be metalcore.
#6: The Monkees – “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster”
Okay, show of hands. Who was crying out for a Monkees comeback? Anyone? Put your hand down, dad, Jesus Christ. Wait, this is actually sort of good. I…I kind of like this. Noel Gallagher co-wrote it? I suppose that explains some things.
#7: Portugal. The Man – “Plastic Soldiers”
Who gave the indie kids access to the internet? They managed to find a Portugal. The Man track that isn’t all that great. It’s about as middling a work as you can find from a middling also-ran indie act. You thought you were doing something good, but instead you fucked it all up. Good work, Reddit.
#8: Soundgarden – “Rusty Cage”
The rest of the post title literally reads: “I know this has been posted before, but not for months & I think it’s well worth posting again.” Oh, well, I guess that makes sense except wait IT WAS LITERALLY POSTED YESTERDAY AS THE JOHNNY CASH COVER.
Who are you trying to fool, anyway? We all know where the inspiration to post this came from.
Decent tune though.
#9: Link Wray – “Rumble”
Link Wray poked a hole in his speaker cone with a pencil and invented hard rock single-handed. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. Reddit of course knows it from its multiple pop cultural appearances, including Tarantino. At least it’s better than just posting the songs from Guitar Hero .
#10: Joywave – “Nice House”
Lyrics are the only really halfway interesting part of this song, the rest is a really generic and straightforward electro-pop song, like what Hot Chip would write if they got really, really boring all of a sudden. The outro is rather nice though.
TODAY’S AVERAGE: B- (Not bad, Reddit!)
And now for a new sequence, brought to you by the…ahem…”tastemakers” of Reddit’s infamously awful /r/music community.
It’s often said that Reddit has shitty taste in music. Granted it’s usually 4chan’s /mu/ community saying that, but let’s be serious here. Whether it’s the constant love of Queen and Foo Fighters that makes me roll my eyes or the circlejerking over how superior they are because of their love of Tool, /r/music is a bottomfeeder in terms of music communities.
Or is it? I’ve decided to start an ongoing series where I listen to the top ten songs posted to /r/music in a 24 hour period and assign them completely subjective ratings based on my own insane whims and thought processes. Then we’ll see if /r/music’s taste actually sucks as badly as I’ve always thought.
Without further ado, I give to you:
June 1st, 2016 (12:30 PM) to June 2nd, 2016 (12:30 PM)
#1: Rancid – “Ruby Soho”
The most poppy and milquetoast of all of the Clash-rip-off’s poppy and milquetoast songs. /r/music loves punk rock, but only if it’s from Le Nineties and it’s been beaten to death on the radio since then.
#2: The Avalanches – “Frankie Sinatra”
The first time since 2001 that Australian sample-stackers The Avalanches release new music AND it’s fucking stellar? You win this time Reddit. You win this time.
#3: Dethklok – “I Ejaculate Fire”
I’d say something snarky about how the only way metal gets to the top of Reddit is in cartoon form but I can’t hate on Dethklok. This isn’t completely dildos.
#4: Johnny Cash – “Rusty Cage”
The best that can be said of this is that at least Reddit took a break from jerking off over “Hurt”. At least with “Rusty Cage” I don’t have to read about how “REZNOR TOTALLY SAID THAT SONG BELONGED TO JOHNNY CASH NOW BECAUSE THE COVER WAS SO MUCH BETTER!!1!11!”. In fact, one of the top comments is the exact opposite. Thank you, Jesus.
#5: The Distillers – “The Young Crazed Peeling”
Man it has been a long time since I thought of Brody and The Distillers. It still sounds like Courtney Love fronting Rancid to me, and as the years have gone by that prospect appeals to me exponentially less. Also, those fucking spikes. Jesus Brody, how much money did you shell out to get that look down just right? How punk rock of you.
#6: Huey Lewis And The News – “If This Is It”
Jesus Christ Reddit, Bret Easton Ellis was being ironic. What the hell is wrong with you?
#7: Lagwagon – “Island Of Shame”
Apparently it’s awful pop punk day on Reddit. Lagwagon was that band that was there for you if Pennywise was too edgy for you. Completely indistinguishable from anything else on Epitaph in the mid-90s.
#8: Grand Funk Railroad – “I’m Your Captain (Closer To Home)”
GFR got a lot of hate back in the day from critics because, well, they’re not really that good on average. Still, they were capable of moments of brilliance, and “I’m Your Captain” is one of those. For more on Grand Funk Railroad, consult your local library.
#9: Men At Work – “Down Under”
Goofy Eighties pop rock from the Gowan of Australia. I often wonder who posts these sorts of songs. Kids nostalgic for a time they never had to live through? Adults putting on rose-coloured nostalgia glasses? Mouthbreathers who listen to bland Mix FM stations at work? At least in dying you don’t have to deal with New Wave for a second time.
#10: The Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu (aka The KLF) – “It’s Grim Up North”
Reddit’s sizeable school shooter community comes through in the clutch.
TODAY’S AVERAGE: C+
Blank Realm – Illegals In Heaven
Blank Realm are an Australian band that define the term “middle-tier”. They are a bellwether of what people are talking about when they’re talking about mainstream indie – arpeggiated near-ballads indebted to the Stone Roses broken up with the occasional more uptempo number. They’ve never been anything particularly special, and Illegals In Heaven doubles down on this middle-of-the-road oblivion. The album kicks off in an exciting enough manner with “No Views”, a garaged-up number that kicks along in a more galvanizing fashion than they’ve ever really managed before. Unfortunately, it falls apart quickly after with songs that lounge and snooze rather than rally; “Costume Drama” and “Palace of Love” make an attempt at getting the party started again but it’s largely an abortive effort. Illegals In Heaven tries to trade in on mid-tempo balladry to fill out its scant ideas, and tellingly said ballads are nowhere near the league of the uptempo pieces.
“Too Late Now”, the final track, exemplifies the real problems with this album: it’s slavish Stone Roses worship with a ham-fisted attempt at being edgier with the vocal, and it only half-works. It passes the time well enough, but nothing sticks around after the fact, like a dream that gets scattered and lost upon waking.
Yo La Tengo – Stuff Like That There
Way way back in the 1980s – 1990, actually, but who’s keeping score? – indie shapeshifters Yo La Tengo released an album called Fakebook which was, as the name implies, a collection of covers and old Yo La Tengo songs that were reworked to fit alongside them. It was a high point in the band’s early catalog, and twenty-five years later they’ve returned to the concept for another go-around. Stuff Like That There reproduces the structure, putting covers alongside reworkings of old songs. Out of the nine featured covers, the only two that are likely to be named by the general populace is Hank William’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and The Cure’s “Friday I’m In Love”. This time around, however, the vibe is considerably laid back, featuring gentle, acoustic versions that are suited for playing on the porch, or around a campfire under a stretched-out spray of stars. Everything here is very quiet but suffused with deep meaning courtesy of Georgia Hubley’s warm, expressive voice; like Low, they’re able to get a lot out of relatively little on Stuff Like That There. The album also marks the return of guitarist Dave Schramm, who was a fixture in early Yo La Tengo and played on Fakebook. Schramm takes over the leads, leaving longtime guitarist Ira Kaplan to take on a strictly rhythm role, and the effect is pronounced. Typically, a Yo La Tengo album would feature odd, angular guitar work courtesy of Kaplan; Schramm is a much gentler, more Jerry Garcia-influenced guitarist, and the leads he glides on here are much more suited to the material.
If you ever wanted a mostly-covers Yo La Tengo album where everything sounds like a bunch of people sitting around a campfire approximating the Dead, then Stuff Like That There is going to be right where you want it to be. Otherwise it’s just another addition into the lengthy Yo La Tengo catalog, and not a particularly essential one at that.
Colleen Green – I Want To Grow Up
Once upon a time I had high hopes for Colleen Green. When she put out her first super lo-fi tracks, back when Milo Goes To Compton was a thing, I thought she was the coolest person in indie rock. She was living proof that all you needed was a guitar, a drum machine, and a bag of weed, and you too could make emotionally connecting pop music. It was freeing in a way that made me instantly fall in love. Then her “actual” debut, Sock It To Me, came out and it fell kind of flat. Sure, the quirks that made up her songwriting style were there, but everything sounded too professional, as though some hidebound engineer had been sitting in the studio saying “OK Ms. Green, that’s cool and all, but we need these to sound like actual songs.” I Want To Grow Up is kind of like that as well, but it’s a bit better in that she seems to have grown used to having to write actual songs that normal people can listen to and not be weirded out by. This makes for some great moments – the two-parter “Things That Are Bad For Me” being the best – but the overall effect is of a jaded Los Angelite channeling Red Album era Weezer. In other words, a decent listen but pretty ho-hum for all of that.
Twerps – Range Anxiety
Just the other day I was saying, “you know what there isn’t enough of in modern music? Inoffensive, vaguely charming indie rock bands who play electric guitars like they’re folk rockers and play with twee boy-girl harmonies in a laid-back, cabin-in-the-woods sort of way”. Then I came down.
It’s not like Twerps are actively offensive; if they tried a little more, they might be, but the biggest problem is that they just don’t try hard enough to be anything. Three chords, some harmonies, and the blandest lyrics this side of Mumford and Sons. This is just the Feelies, watered down through the ages and rendered toothless, sort of like how Melvins got diluted into Theory of a Deadman at one point. It’s all very fresh-faced and earnest, like they had a residency in Stars Hollow and were playing the bandshell every night. Look for them to pick up banjos and make the transition to modern rock format FM radio soon.
Belle And Sebastian – Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance
19 years, nine albums, and a problem: a venerable indie band that was in danger of falling into self-parody. While albums like If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy With The Arab Strap set the standard for indie pop in the 1990s, by 2010’s Belle And Sebastian Write About Love it seemed like they were simply putting in work. Solid work, it must be said, but still, it seemed as though Belle And Sebastian were a job more than a band. Five years between then and now, the band has reinvented itself radically. There is a much bigger focus on rhythm than there ever was on previous albums, to the point where tracks like “The Party Line”, “Enter Sylvia Plath”, and “Play For Today” fuse their particular songwriting style with indie-disco to make what for all intents and purposes is great dance music. In fact there are really only a couple of songs – most notably the sweet, string-laden “The Cat With The Cream” – that harken back to previous Belle And Sebastian records. It’s a different kind of album that still manages to hold its own in the band’s discography, a revolution in their sound, a Belle And Sebastian reboot. It works in exactly the same way that Tegan and Sara’s rather similar reboot didn’t; it layers on a slicker, dancier, more fun kind of sound, but it doesn’t sacrifice an iota of their integrity to do so.