It's all about the grooves

March 4, 2007


Confronted by the occasional reader who protests that he or she just doesn't "get" hip-hop, electronic dance music or certain styles of world beat -- "It's not music, it's noise!" -- like many critics, I often counter that the listener's problem may be a limited, decidedly Western and increasingly outdated notion of what music is.

From King Sunny Ade to Public Enemy to Chicago house music, many extraordinary sounds emphasize rhythm over melody, and enjoying them only requires a willingness to lose oneself in the glories of the groove.

It's a valid argument, and one I believe to the core of my critical being, but I didn't expect to have it about "The Neon Bible," the second, much-anticipated album by Montreal indie-rock heroes the Arcade Fire.

And it's especially ironic given the group's fondness for that hoariest of Western musical cliches -- the orchestra -- and the reams that have already been written by college English majors turned bloggers about the deep, deep meanings of singer and bandleader Win Butler's oh-so-literary lyrics.

The first half-dozen listens to "The Neon Bible" left me cold and gearing up to cry sophomore slump. The album -- which is being released as a regular CD, a deluxe disc with a 32-page booklet and an old-fashioned double LP -- took most of 2006 to record, with the group primarily working in a Canadian church, as well as studios in London, New York and Budapest, from whence came the symphony and choir. Sure, I heard some memorable hooks in the complicated mix. But they often seemed to sink beneath the bombast, or get lost in the often overblown and operatic sturm und drang.

Then I remembered that I initially felt the same way about the band's last effort.

Formed after Butler saw his future wife, Regine Chassagne, singing lounge standards in an art gallery at Quebec's Concordia University, the Arcade Fire debuted with a self-titled EP in 2003. The group grew to include seven musicians, now expanded to 10 onstage, including multi-instrumentalist Will Butler, Win's younger brother. The two grew up in Texas, and music was in their blood: Their grandfather, Alvino Rey, was a driving force behind "The King Family Show," an early '60s musical-variety TV program rife with patriotic and spiritual anthems, and a composer of "space age bachelor pad music" such as 1960's "Ping Pong!," a genre classic.

Rey's death was one of several referenced in the title of 2004's "Funeral," which many of its ardent admirers -- an esteemed group that includes David Bowie, David Byrne, Coldplay's Chris Martin and U2 as well as all those indie-rock bloggers -- heard as a concept album about continuing in the face of staggering loss. But the band's leader pretty much scoffed at that notion when I spoke to him in 2005.

"I just think most writers tend to have some sort of lyrical world: They use a lot of similar images and words in songs, not as an intentional thing, but just as ideas they keep coming back to," Butler said. "A lot of times songs in the same period of time will be dealing with similar ideas and try to get at them from a different angle. I tend to not write things down too much, in terms of lyrics or melodies, so if I'm singing something in the shower and I remember it two weeks later, it's usually a sign that it's good."

If the "similar images and words" flowing out of Butler last time seemed to deal with death, doom and gloom on a personal level, his perspective this time is from the more apocalyptic scale of world politics ("I don't wanna fight in a holy war / I don't want the salesmen knocking on my door... I can't breathe! I can't see! / World War III, when are you coming for me?" he asks in "Windowsill") and the heavy philosophical basis of religion ("Workin' for the church while your life falls apart / Singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart," he howls after a regale church organ sets the mood in "Intervention").

By his own admission, Butler is a lyrical impressionist, and he does create a dark and ominous vibe that sharply contrasts with the music, which is every bit as rousing, sunny and uplifting as that of fellow ork-popsters the Polyphonic Spree. The difference is that band's Tim DeLaughter writes sketchy lyrics as upbeat as the music, and he's dismissed by hipsters as a cartoon; Butler writes sketchy lyrics at odds with the music, and he's hailed as a genius, though he doesn't approach Nick Cave for Gothic melodrama, and he's yet to give us a political- or religious-themed masterpiece like Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" or "Blood on the Tracks."

So how did I come to stop worrying and learn to appreciate, if not exactly love, "The Neon Bible"? Its charms didn't hit me in the shower so much as they wormed their way into my subconscious, when the disc was playing in the background and I wasn't really paying any attention -- until I found myself bouncing along in time.

What turned me around on "Funeral" was seeing the band live and experiencing its gleeful abandonment to rhythm. Any fan will tell you that the best moment of an Arcade Fire show is when most if not all of the musicians are hammering away on drums and percussion, creating a massive 4/4 undertow that recalls a less syncopated but just as metronomic and irresistible version of the crazy rhythms championed by New Jersey's cult favorites the Feelies from the late '70s through the mid-'80s.

In other words, it's all about the grooves. And if "The Neon Bible" isn't as strong as "Funeral," it's only because fewer of the songs here boast those big, beautiful backbeats: I count five out of 11 lumbering misses, with the title track, "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations," "Ocean of Noise," "No Cars Go" and "My Body is a Cage" simply failing to deliver the goods rhythmically, not to mention melodically or lyrically.

It's possible that Butler & Co. will redeem these sullen tracks in concert. But until then, I'll content myself with programming my CD player to hit the high points on "The Neon Bible," which are very good indeed, and which are guaranteed to sweep you away with their percussive powers -- if only you give them the chance.


The Arcade Fire performs three shows at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State, at 7:30 p.m. May 18-20. Tickets are $31; call (312) 559-1212.


The Arcade Fire
"The Neon Bible" (Merge)
Critic's rating: 3 stars