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Arcade Fire's 'Reflektor': is this at last the perfect record?

Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor’: is this at last the perfect record for our beautifully fucked-up world?

How would it be to exist without music?

I for one would have no clue, and I don’t want to try imagining it, or even write much more along those lines.  But it is, perhaps, worth asking a related question: how would it be to exist without excellent music, or even very good music?  For me, this has been the question of the week.  And you can blame Arcade Fire for that.

I’ve been following this Montreal-based bunch since their highly acclaimed debut Funeral (2004).  Using the phrase ‘highly acclaimed’ in this context is hardly new or surprising – it seems that when Arcade Fire simply get out of bed in the morning there’s cause for rapturous excitement around the world, the sort of rapturous excitement that once greeted The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan (the crusty old shit that he’s become), David Bowie, Nirvana, and, erm, U-bloody-2.

But is Arcade Fire really that good?

There’s no doubt that when they’re fully charged they’re excellent.  Witness ‘Neighbourhood No. 2’ and ‘Wake Up’ from Funeral, ‘Intervention’ and ‘No Cars Go’ from Neon Bible (2007), and ‘The Suburbs’, ‘Ready to Start’, ‘Modern Man’ and ‘Suburban War’ from The Suburbs (2010).  One day Arcade Fire are going to put out a best-of that’s going to knock the socks off people and prove once and for all how great – and ‘great’ is the word – they can be.

However, and this is a big ‘however’: they can also be utterly infuriating.

Some Arcade Fire songs start brilliantly before burning out as though in the end they just didn’t know what to do with them but, hey, chuck it on the record anyway.  The band can pack too many ideas into each song (certainly Reflektor suffers from this in parts), and lyrically they can be as awfully obtuse as a Sixth Form poet inspired only by Google.  Throw into the mix the fact that they’re fueled by both anger and beauty, they appear to adore and detest modern life in equal measures, and they can be grand, dramatic, over-dramatic, over-blown even, but there’s also a deep vein of melancholia throughout.  A rich brew or a directionless mess?  They’re both, quite honestly.

So.  What to make of this latest record?

In a way it’s exactly what you’d expect.  This is, apparently, Arcade Fire’s dance collection and they enlisted LCD Soundsytem’s James Murphy to get their hips a-wigglin’.  Appropriately split over two discs, and inspired by the 1950 Brazilian classic Black Orpheus and its themes of death and isolation, Win Butler, wife Régine Chassagne, and the couple’s clever cohorts lead us from the superb ‘Reflektor’ – this is their ‘Atomic’ – through ‘You Already Know’, which sounds like what would happen if Butler fronted The Smiths and Queen, and the almost Clash-like ‘Joan of Arc’.

On the second disc the pairing of ‘Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)’ and ‘It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)’ shows just how close Arcade Fire is getting to John Lennon, in ambition if not execution.  ‘Porno’, the most James Murphy-esque track, is a fine slice of moody electro, and ‘Afterlife’ is one of those typically exasperating Arcade Fire songs: a gorgeous verse, a glorious chorus, it’s all ‘Can we work it out?/If we scream and shout till we work it out?/Can we just work it out?/If we scream and shout till we work it out?’, and then, and then – well, it just collapses under its own weight.

Referencing a bunch of great bands and singer/songwriters here is intentional, including The Smiths and The Clash.  Is Reflektor as good as the former’s The Queen is Dead or the latter’s London Calling?  No, it’s not.  But it’s dangerously close.  It has the scope, depth, audacity, and a burning desire to create something as timelessly artful as those albums.  In some ways it also feels like the best mix-tape you could ever possibly receive (the inclusion on the second disc of the test-sound once found on cassettes alludes to this) and, perhaps, in the age of iTunes, YouTube, and Spotify, Reflektor is as good as it gets.

A magnificently flawed masterpiece.  Yes, let’s call it that.

And I can’t stop listening to it.

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Okay, stand well back, because I’m about to do something I’ve never done before, and, dare I say it, you’ve probably never seen done before.  Am I about to turn myself inside out?  Levitate while cross-legged?  Speak in two languages at once?  No.  What I’m about to do is quote Australian literary legend David Malouf in what’s essentially a review of three pop-music records.  In his article titled ‘Music, the most abstract of the arts, is mathematics on the move’, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 15 May 2010, Malouf asks, So what is music for?  What does it do to us or for us?  What happens when we give ourselves over to actually listening to it?  Music vibrates in the air around us and involves us; it touches and moves us.  Its rhythms take us back to primitive foot-tapping and finger-clicking or clapping; the regularity of its beat excites our heartbeats and pleases us with its natural order; it invites the body, even when the body remains still, to sway and dance.  All music takes us back to the body; all instruments discover what they do in what the body does.

Three records that are currently doing exactly what Malouf is talking about, taking me back to my body, and getting me pretty bloody excited in the process, are ‘High Violet’ by The National, ‘Crystal Castles’ by Crystal Castles, and ‘This Is Happening’ by LCD Soundsystem, the latter band surely being the most genuinely enthralling bunch of contemporary musicians working today.

First up, The National’s ‘High Violet’.  Frankly, these guys are so god-damn frustrating.  They could be great, they could be huge.  They could take REM’s indy-music crown, and part of me wants this to happen, because on ‘High Violet’ they get mighty, mighty close to making something truly significant.  This is a big record, one that’s best played up loud so the richness and the rawness makes your rib-bones rattle.  Melancholic, intimate, but still rocking, it’s an intriguing beast of a thing.  In parts, especially on album-opener ‘Terrible Love’, it owes a little to Sigur Ros, in terms of the buzz-saw atmospherics, and Arcade Fire in terms of the naked ambition.  ‘Afraid of Everyone’ (I put my hand up to say, yes, that’s me), ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, and ‘Lemonworld’ is a stunning trifecta of songs and worth the price-tag alone.  The frustration comes from Matt Berninger’s voice, which while deeply attractive and listenable does tend to mangle the lyrics into an unintelligible slop so that a song’s never given the opportunity to properly blossom into a classic.  But this album grows and grows on you until you just can’t live without it, and perhaps that’s where The National’s true genius lies.

Crystal Castles has now given us their second album and it’s…um…totally friggin’…beautiful.  Yes, beautiful.  Though I should caution that at times it’s an ugly kind of beauty.  As with the duo’s first – and also self-titled – album, there’s the mix of scratchy, screechy snippets of dancey noise (a bit like a jacked-up Sonic Youth trapped in a computer-game shop) and then great big slathers of almost-but-not-quite trance.  This time around, however, it all comes together in a more cohesive whole.  ‘Celestica’, ‘Year of Silence’ (which samples ‘Inni Mer Syngur Vitleysingur’ by Sigur Ros, revealing the dark soul of those Icelandic noise-niks, which, to my mind, is missing from Jonsi’s solo effort ‘Go’, though the darkness is all over his and his partner Alex Somers’ extraordinary Riceboy Sleeps album) and ‘Vietnam’ make for fantastic listening.  For those of an age there’s a fair bit of inspiration from the 90s-era, Rickenbacker-strumming English band Lush in many of these beguiling songs, and that’s no bad thing.  As long as the world has artists like Crystal Castles in it, dance music and electronica is in very…dangerous hands indeed.  Bugger it, I might just pour myself a glass of champagne, turn out the lights, crank this album up very loud, and dance around the lounge-room like a dervish until the Old Lady of the House and Cat the Ripper give me the evil eye before darting under the bed.

And so we come to LCD Soundsystem, which is the first band in years that have spun my nipples so hard that I’m amazed that I still have a chest.  Mixing brilliant, thoughtful beats and the wittiest of lyrics, a gorgeous though not unchallenging pop sensibility, and perfect production, ‘This Is Happening’ is already in my Top Ten Albums of 2010.  Like the band’s previous record, ‘Sound of Silver’, the influences are many, though in almost every song I’m reminded of Talking Heads’ ‘Remain in Light’, which just so happens to be in my Top Ten Albums of All Time.  Having said that, the stunning, feedback-drenched ‘All I Want’ sounds suspiciously like a mash-up of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ and any Strokes song you care to mention, just infinitely better.  While it’s true that there aren’t as many highs as on ‘Sound of Silver’, this is a more minimal record, and it’s one that deserves – and rewards – close listening, because there’s more than one devil in the detail here.  And it’s all so very, very New York that I almost feel like going out to graffiti something just for the heck of it.  Apparently James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem’s key protagonist, has said that this is the last outing for this particular musical incarnation.  If this is true, good on him for bowing out while completely on top of his game.

David Malouf in his Sydney Morning Herald article goes on to say the following: One of the opportunities art offers us is simply to stand still for a moment and look, or to sit still and listen; the pleasure of being firmly present while the ego goes absent and our consciousness is fired with something other than ourselves.  For some reason, losing ourselves in this way is a form of self-discovery.  Going passive and absent energises us, gives us a renewed sense of presence. Whether you want to sit still and be swept away or dance like a complete idiot without a care in the world (I can flit between the two with remarkable ease, I should admit), being fully present in the company of these three albums could make you very happy to be living on this planet in the year 2010.

***

If you’re interested in reading the full Malouf article, it can be found here.

A Cataract Gorge postcard, 1906

Last week I came to Tasmania with only a backpack and a laptop in a travel-case and, let me be frank, a shitload of hope that I’ll write well here (and by ‘well’ I mean, as I’ve noted before, to write by hand).  While the jury’s out on the latter, the minimalist luggage situation has caused one very significant problem: no room for CDs.  In the past when I’ve gone away to write I’ve been able to go in my trusty Barina, meaning more than enough room for a swag of CDs.  But not this trip.

Of course, I have an mp3-player contraption loaded with some much-loved albums, recent gems by Four Tet, Frightened Rabbit and Volcano Choir, amongst others.  There is, however, a need to hear music through the air, music that fills more than the space between my ears.  For that purpose I made room for just one CD from the hundreds (possibly thousands – eek) I have collected over the years, so I chose very, very carefully indeed.  I chose what I know will be in the top three albums of 2010.

When I arrived at the Gorge, tired from a day of travelling (two flights, a stack of waiting and reading in between) but also excited about commencing another period of writing in an unfamiliar place, I discovered that the CD case was broken.  I feared the worst – the actual CD could be irreparably damaged.  I needed to play it to make sure it worked.  In the first hour I hunted around the cottage for a CD player, getting increasingly desperate.  Could I really be about to spend the next month – a whole month – without music in the air?

After turning the place upside down (though not really: I am at heart a gentle soul, and this cottage is 120 years old and, apparently, one of the most photographed in Tasmania, so it deserves respect) I realised that there was no magic music machine here.  Immediately, and just a little shamelessly, I emailed the Launceston City Council who manages the Cataract Gorge Artist-in-Residence Program.  No doubt sensing the distress in my words, they offered to bring around a CD player – but they couldn’t do it for a few days.  Could I cope until Thursday? they asked.  No, of course I couldn’t, but I wasn’t about to push my luck any further.  For the next 96 hours there was no sound in the cottage other than that of pen on paper, fingers on laptop keyboard, and, at the end of each day, the sweet relief of white wine being poured into a champagne glass.

Then the glorious moment arrived: two lovely representatives from the Launceston City Council came around and dropped off a brand-spanking new CD player.  ‘We were just waiting for someone to ask,’ they said generously as they lifted the handsome black beast from the box.  An hour later, after a cup of a tea and a chat (we spent most of it talking about blogging, would you believe), they left me to my own devices.  But the stereo stubbornly refused to play my CD – it claimed that there was ‘no CD’ even though I could see such a thing on the spindle.  I pressed every button I could find and swore like a rabid trooper, but still my CD couldn’t be brought to life.

Being at times the most tenacious person you’ve ever met (or not met, as the case may be), I realised that the CD player had a USB port and I had a legal download of the album on my laptop.  Hooray for technology after all!  I put the album onto a memory stick that had once been used as a marketing gimmick, put the stick into the CD player, and…the bastard thing still wouldn’t work.  It quit playing halfway through tracks, and quite steadfastly refused to broadcast whole sections of the album.  I cleared the memory stick and put the album on it a second time, but it was still no good – the same mega-frustrating problem.

In the morning I’d be travelling two and a half hours to the other end of Tasmania to spend a couple of days in Hobart.  I hatched a plan: while in the big smoke I’d buy a damn good memory stick and see if that would fix a matter that was now keeping me up at night.  After spending much of my time holed up in an 1840s whaler’s cottage (poor bloody whales) and giving a workshop on writing about place, I ducked into town to get the much-desired memory stick – despite the fact that I’m running out of money, I didn’t skimp on price – and this morning I jumped on the bus back to Launceston.  Would what I had safe and secure in my laptop bag fix this hurdle to my month-long residency?

It was an interesting bus trip to say the least.  Behind me was a man who, with earphones in his ears, insisted on laughing loudly to himself the whole time as if he was in his own private comedy show.  Even more worrying, in the seats in front of me were two heavily tattooed young men who spent the journey talking loudly and proudly about how they’d both just gotten out of jail.  One of the men ‘couldn’t read or nuffin’’.  The other man had gone to Hobart to see his ‘missus’ before she too was sent to jail, but rather than stay with her he’d spent the night on the streets; this same man wondered if his mate knew that sometimes you can shoot a wombat twelve times and it may not die.  The poor granny beside me did nothing but stare straight ahead, refusing to even blink for fear of being knifed.  I had flash-backs to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  Needless to say I clutched onto my newly purchased memory stick very tight, as if it was made of Unobtainium.

But then, thankfully, gratefully, I arrived in Launceston and walked back up to the Gorge.  Would the Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage be soon filled with the sounds of an album that I know will be in the top ten of the decade?

As soon as I stepped into the cottage, I downloaded the album onto the new memory stick and then plugged the stick into the stereo.  Oh dear Lord, there it was at last.  Music in the air, good music, great music.  But it’s not just any music.  What I played this morning – and am still playing this evening as I write this post – does everything I expect of great music: it is clever, it is beautiful, it is dark (to the point of grimness); it makes you want to cry one minute and then swing your hips the next, or even do a bit of air-guitar; it is new, thoughtful, sometimes funny, but above all it takes risks.

It’s a clash, a mash-up, a remix and a reimagining.

Interested in hearing This Mortal Coil versus Sigur Ros?  Philip Glass versus Elton John?  REM versus Sia?  Want a listening journey that encompasses David Lynch soundtracks, David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Coldplay, Nancy Sinatra, Nina Simone, Nirvana, Bon Iver, and Harry Dean Stanton, Charles Bukowski and Bob Dylan, just to name a few artists represented in this collection?   Do you have a penchant for melancholia and the more reflective side of eletronica?  If the answer is yes to these questions, you need Introversion by Irish DJ/producer/remixer/mash-up artist Phil Retrospector.  Amazingly it isn’t available commercially, but you can listen to it here.

Can I be so bold as to say that if the Coldplay versus The Beetles versus Joe Anderson mash-up called ‘Jude Will Fix It’ doesn’t make you smile or bring you to tears, or both at the same time, then you may want to check for a pulse – and I’m not even a crazy fan of these bands individually.  So I end this tale with a declaration and a request: if a wild Tasmanian storm comes Launceston’s way (the weather reports are saying that it’s quite possible this week) and I get flushed out of my little cliff-face cottage and washed into the Tamar River and never come up for air, then please have this song playing as you file out of the crematorium.

Last week I came to Tasmania with only a backpack and a laptop in a travel-case, but now I have music in the air.

The Society Islands: still getting a handle on the whole 'keeping dry' thing.

There used to be a time when I’d hear about new music because I saw it on Countdown, a much-loved Sunday-night music show here in Australia.  Or I’d read about it in the free street press, when I pretended to know about what the next big thing would be.  Or I’d hear it on my crackly old transistor radio (where on earth did that go?).  Or I’d overhear some kid much cooler than me talking about it in the schoolyard, or I’d spot a sticker on a folder when I was meant to working out what the hell the teacher had just written on the board.  A third of a century later it just magically turns up courtesy of this whole interweb thing.  Which is one of the perks of this brave new world we live in, I guess.

So…getting to the point…some new music:

I’d not heard of The Society Islands before (neither the place nor the band), but I have now.  Essentially The Islands are a one-man band formed by Boris Rogowski, one talented bastard based in Cologne, Germany.  And their latest album, the rather ominously titled Last Hero of the Western World is well worth a listen.  I don’t do mp3s on Under the Flutter (partly out of technological ineptness, but also because of the principle – it’s not so bad to actually pay for music every now and again), but you can visit the band here or check out LastFM to listen to a few of the tracks.

There’s an obvious intelligence to the songwriting, which is both dramatic and melodic, in parts reminding me of Jeff Buckley if he was a little more on the Jarvis Cocker side (and, of course, a little less on the dead side).  There’s even some David Bowie in the clarity of the voice and the elocution. Mostly, however, I hear Canada’s The Dears, particularly in the biting, cynical though at times very funny lyrics and the cinematic feel to much of the music.  For me, it’s the last two tracks that are the real killers,’No Place Home’ and ‘The Filing Cabinet’; here the dramatics are kept in check and the melancholic melodies allowed to work their evil magic, a little like a less morose Antlers.

By the sounds of it, The Society Islands (which, for those wondering, are a group of islands in the south Pacific Ocean and were named by James Cook in honour of the Royal Society, the sponsor of the first British scientific survey of that neck of the woods) are the epitome of determination, with Mr Rogowski pushing on regardless of whether or not this album gets picked up by a major.

Certainly worth a few minutes of your time to get your ears wrapped some of the beauties on offer here.

Now, if only Countdown made a comeback.  Anyone?

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