Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” (2010) – The Weekend Review

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  4 / 5 stars

In the barren land of the contemporary concept album, the band that tries is king.

The Suburbs is the year’s only true concept album, as demonstrated by the thematic threads woven through songs, the reprises and continuations of songs across the disc, and the packaging.  And, although it never quite attains the cohesion and creativity of Relient K’s 2009 offering Forget and Not Slow Down, the expansiveness of 2008’s Coldplay record Viva La Vida (or Death and All His Friends), or the dramatic force of 2008’s other great concept album, the Counting Crows’ Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, it certainly carries the torch into the coming decade as 2010’s concept album du jour.

Arcade Fire have long held indie credibility and respect, clarifying via Funeral (2004) and Neon Bible (2007) that they value record-making over single production.  Each of their first two albums made the cut on numerous “Best of” lists, not only for the year they were released but also for the decade.

So the fact that The Suburbs is an even more complex and keenly rendered effort is saying something.

This album has a sound all its own, one that is clearly Arcade Fire but also fresh and unique to this record.  For instance, as strong a composition as “(Antichrist Television Blues)” is, it would sound incomplete, empty even, were it to be placed on The Suburbs, an album characterized by a fullness of sound heretofore unachieved by the band.

What is perhaps most detrimental to the overall quality is the length of individual songs, most of which brush past the four minute mark.  Arcade Fire has never shied away from breaking the three minute ceiling, and yet there is such a homogeneity of sound throughout that the duration of individual tracks causes the listening experience to blend together.

One might argue that this is a strength, that this provides cohesion that elevates the effort as a whole, yet it is difficult to argue this when many of the strongest individual songs — tracks like “Wasted Hours” and “Month of May” — have significant thematic value while aurally distinguishing themselves and remaining in the three minute range.

Perhaps this homogeneity is an intentional compositional decision on Arcade Fire’s part, meant to help convey sonically the boredom, fear, and regularity of suburban life that The Suburbs exposes and explores lyrically.

I can certainly respect this as a creative decision, though it doesn’t change the fact that, for as good a record as this is, I simply haven’t revisited it as often as other discs from 2010.

The Suburbs cover (Arcade Fire, 2010)

The Suburbs cover (Arcade Fire, 2010)

As the cover’s vibrant but sun-spotted, seventies-esque image of a residential home with car parked out front suggests, The Suburbs comes across quite convincingly as a historical document of the rapid post-World War II expansion of suburban areas, often referred to as sprawl.  The hauntingly emotive “Sprawl I (Flatland)” aptly captures the claustrophobic nature of the neighborhood.  As Win Butler sings, “The cops shone their lights on the reflectors of our bikes / and said, ‘Do you know what time it is?’ / — Well sir, it’s the first time I’ve felt like something is mine, like I have something to give.”  Anyone who grew up in the suburbs will remember this urgency of exploration, of attempting to find a place in the larger world you felt existed but could never quite access.

Butler continues, “The last defender of the sprawl said, ‘Well where do you kids live?’ Well sir, if you only knew what the answer is worth I’ve been searching every corner of the earth.”  This motif of authority, of the norm-protectors and upholders of the public safety blurring the line between security and apathy, is touched on across the record.  As in suburban life, the authority blends into the background but is always there, threatening to impinge on the processes of youthful discovery.

On “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” Butler’s wife and bandmate Regine Chassagne takes on the role of an eighties performer, voicing over a bed of synthesized sound that, “They heard me singing and they told me to stop, quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.”  Here, she sings more directly of a fear of purposelessness, of the constrictive nature of the city lights.

As she goes on to sing, “Living in the sprawl the dead shopping malls rise like / mountains beyond mountains and there’s no end in sight. / I need the darkness.  Someone, please cut the lights!”

These two tracks provide a fitting wrap-up before giving way to “The Suburbs (continued),” a minute long reprise of the title track, which nicely fades back into the opening (and title) track.  The waning whisper of “The Suburbs (continued)” aptly makes one thrill at the returning vitality of “The Suburbs,” luring the listener back into this locale, “waiting in line for a number,” not understanding, like a “Modern Man,” getting “Ready to Start,” admiring the “Rococo” arrangement of images and sounds across The Suburbs, traversing the loneliness of the “Empty Room,” the feeling of living underground in a “City With No Children” in “a garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside of a private prison,” adding up both half lights to find “(No Celebration)” but a prayer “to god I won’t live to see the death of everything that’s wild” instead, witnessing a “Suburban War” where “the music divides us into tribes” and “all my old friends, they don’t know me now / all my old friends are staring through me now,” reliving the passion and violence of the “Month of May,” reminiscing about “Wasted Hours” that passed “before we knew where to go and what to do,” remembering how “I used to write letters” and “We Used to Wait” for a letter to return though “sometimes it never came,” and ultimately ending up back in the “Sprawl” — the “Flatlands,” the “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” all amounting to a concept of “The Suburbs,” taker of all the time that “I’d only waste… again.”

For keenly recreating the texture and the mood of the suburban life and all its benefits, shortcomings, and ramifications, Arcade Fire deserves praise for The Suburbs.  In a sense, they have created an aural landscape that is difficult to revisit for too long or too often, which suggests an interesting question as to the divide between music as entertainment and music as art.

Regardless, they have also created an outstanding concept album.

“Polly” (Nirvana Cover)

By Jeff Copperthite:

Good evening and welcome to another awesome edition of The Laptop Sessions!  Tuesday is always a tricky day for me since I usually have school, then a couple of hours to practice and spend time with my wife, then my weekly Dynamis run.  We had a good run tonight, but then I get to post my performance – and tonight it’s a new band!

The band I am featuring tonight is Nirvana, one of the most well-known alternative rock acts of all time.  The song I am playing is from their awesome 1991 album “Nevermind”, and it is “Polly”.  It’s a sweet, acoustic number that is kind of out of place on the album.  All the songs have a grunge feel to them (perhaps not the last track, but the rest of them sure do), and this song breaks up the flow of the album, but in a good way.  It makes all the songs not sound the same, and I think the hooking tracks were all singles, which is why the album sold so well in the first place.

The band was fronted by Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide in the mid-90’s much to the dismay of many Nirvana fans.  But that’s a topic you can read about nearly anywhere.

As far as me, I am nearing another viewcount milestone, and can’t wait to reach the 1/20 of a million mark (that’s for my students who say “I hate fractions”).  I’ll be sure to let you know when I cross that threshold.

It’s also my birthday tomorrow – another year added on to my old fart status.

Enjoy tonight’s session, and report back tomorrow for another awesome original tune by Jim Fusco!

Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, Jeff’s acoustic cover song music videos are no longer on YouTube, but we decided to keep his cover song blog posts up.  We figured these music blog entries would be good for posterity’s sake and because Jeff always gave such insightful posts each Session.  We hope to see Jeff’s impressive catalog of acoustic rock songs here on the Laptop Sessions cover songs and origianal music blog again in the future.  But, for now, please make sure to check-out hundreds of other acoustic cover songs from all of your favorite bands here on the Laptop Sessions music blog!

“Everyday I Write the Book” (Elvis Costello cover) [Ep 5, Fall 2011]

By The Pete Walter Band:

The London, UK based pop/rock band cover a favourite track by one of their main influences, Elvis Costello.  Featuring an interesting beat-box breakdown.

[Editor’s Note: This is, without argument, one of the coolest Guest Sessions we’ve ever had the honor of featuring.  It takes a classic Elvis Costello track and somehow reproduces it flawlessly without being derivative.  This is also an interesting cover song music video because it is performed by a five-piece arrangement, a setup that is fairly rare on the Laptop Sessions yet always interesting and exciting (see videos by mOu and Chris, Jim, and Becky).  They nail this acoustic performance, which we know you’ll appreciate.]

The Other Half: A Look Back at Ten (Officially Released) Jim Fusco Rarities – PART TWO

By Chris Moore:

Last week, I brought you the first five in a list of ten Jim Fusco rarities in preparation for the release of his new album Halfway There this “new music Tuesday,” April 7th, 2009.  After all, there’s no better way to anticipate an upcoming release than to go back and enjoy all previous releases in a series.

In the case of Fusco, there has been quite a variety of musical projects over the course of the past eight years.  There have been six solo studio albums, three band albums, four releases (of 20 tracks each) in the Laptop Sessions acoustic mp3 series, a single, a greatest hits disc (with accompanying music video DVD compilation), and assorted demos, covers, and other tracks.  Now that I’ve officially finished listening to all the Bob Dylan tracks in my collection (almost 700!), I’ve embarked on my “Jim Fusco Catalog” playlist.

Clocking in at “only” eleven hours or so, this should be much easier to tackle than my Bob Dylan playlist!

For those of you Jim Fusco faithfuls, I hope you’ll enjoy the final five tracks on this second installment of “A Look Back at Ten (Officially Released) Jim Fusco Rarities” worth remembering…

A Look Back at Five More (Officially Released) Jim Fusco Rarities…

6)  “The Red, White, and Blues” – This is yet another album starter that I love.  It is Fusco’s first foray into direct protest songwriting.  Indeed, his March 2008 Laptop Sessions version stirred up some controversy in the form of comments left on the site.  It was nice to see that at least some people listen to the lyrics, even if they misread and/or disagreed with their message.  As he wrote in the blog post, this was the first and last “protest” type song of its kind.

7)  “The Second Time” – All I have to say is: this better be at the wedding reception!  In 2003, Jim recorded and released Formula, an album whose material was clearly inspired by his now-fiance Becky Daly.  She joins him near the end of this track, offering up a preview of 2/3 of the Chris, Jim, and Becky trio that would go on to perform around the state and release a “live in the studio” album.  While this isn’t necessarily one of my favorite Jim Fusco songs, it’s always been one of my favorites from Formula and — if it’s not “best of” material, then — it’s “top ten rarities” material.

8)  “Sideshow” – There are so many different tracks that were up for inclusion on this list of rarities — there’s the simple, piano-based vulnerability of “My Angel” or the folky storytelling style of “Vision of Cobblestone Town,” to name just a couple.  “Sideshow” earns a spot in the top ten for its unique sound.  There’s something about this track that is controlled and yet sort of wild; it’s one of those songs whose sound truly meshes with and contributes to the meaning conveyed by the lyrics.  In addition, as the penultimate track on What About Today?, it’s truly the point at which the recurring instrumental section comes to a climax before the first chords of “Harmony” and the close of this concept album.

9)  “Never Taking Your Chances” – This is one of those songs that benefits from my memories surrounding its conception, recording, and release.  I vividly recall my conversations with Jim about the situation that resulted in the writing of this song, and I recall the then-groundbreaking recording methods that he was pioneering.  This is a clear example of early blending between vocals and distortion guitar.  With each album, Jim’s use of guitar effects has become more effective and more interesting, and I can’t wait to hear his latest leap forward on Halfway There.

10)  “Another Backwards Day” – Speaking of guitar effects, “Another Backwards Day” is a track that I always felt was left forgotten about, sandwiched between the live favorites “Can’t Count on Words” and “Sometimes.”  This song is every bit as upbeat and rocking as the other songs around it, and it boasts a Frampton-esque series of guitar solos and riffing.  If “She Waits” (another favorite and one that ALMOST made the list!) demonstrates Jim’s softer, piano-driven side, then “Another Backwards Day” pulls out the stops and allows him to flex his electric muscle.