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ISSUE 118 VOL 10 PUBLISHED 12/3/2004

Arcade Fire lights up

By Ian Anderson
Executive Editor

Friday, December 3, 2004

The Arcade Fire'’s debut album Funeral isn'’t even three months old, but the Montreal septet has already created sizeable buzz – and not just because of the constant Pixies references or cool Debussy name drops. There'’s just something undeniably compelling about a mini-orchestra fusing accessible indie-rock with more subtly-nuanced forms of artistic expression.

Although it has an ominous title, Funeral isn'’t a cataloging of close-knit deaths; rather, it is a documentation of stories about growing up and what that process actually entails.

"“It’'s a collection of songs with different characters,”" frontman Win Butler offered via telephone during the band'’s current tour. "“And we’'re trying to build a home for those characters. What happens when the power cuts out, or if there is a snow storm, or if someone dies?"”

Funeral boasts excellent atypical rock instrumentation: 12-string guitars, harp, violin, cello, double bass and even an accordion make appearances. The unique accompaniments give the album a resplendent sense of elegance, refining the standard indie feel into something much more grandiose.

“"We'’re not really just a straight-up guitar band,"” Butler claimed. “"We use them, but there are other textures that we want. It’'s never been our goal to be too straightforward. The instrumentation will always change; we’'ll always try new things with new sounds.”"

This lavishness, however, doesn'’t make the record feel pretentious or extravagant; Funeral remains honest and deliberate, making it that much more poetic. And that poeticism is more accidental than intentional, which makes the album still even more poetic.

“"There isn'’t any underlying meaning that I could tell you,"” Butler said. "“I don'’t know what music you could say has a meaning. It has to do with the friendship of the people involved, staying up late and writing and playing piano.”"

Reverb-soaked guitars and upright pianos fill in the gaps between the band and the husband-wife creative force of Butler and Regine Chassagne. Straddling the line between manic depression and swaggering optimism, Butler'’s voice possesses a hint of pride, as if his feeling of triumph over an adversity which followed him for some time has yet to fade.

Butler'’s caustic, wavering vocal outbursts are complemented effectively by Chassagne'’s distanced and often Francophone accompaniment. Although Chassagne’'s voice primarily takes a back seat on Funeral –- - periodically chipping in with warm counter-melodies - -– she finally gets her chance at the spotlight on the last track, “"In the Backseat.”" Chassagne doesn’'t waste the opportunity - -– showcasing her Bjork-esque, butt-kicking ability, while screaming her message of bereavement: “"My family tree’s / losing all its leaves."”

Chassagne and Butler both lost grandparents last year, which isn'’t necessarily the direct inspiration for the album, but hardly seems coincidental on an album where references to death abound. Funeral'’s other dominant images are of suburbia.

“"There'’s some images that are of suburban towns in the songs,"” Butler explained. “"Especially my background growing up; Regine, too. Totally different suburbs, but they possess certain commonalities.”"

Butler, originally from suburban Texas, ex-patrioted to Montreal as a student, where he met Richard Perry. Ensuite, string extraordinaire and Montreal music scene veteran Sarah Neufeld joined the band, just before keyboardist Chassagne.

“"I was playing with some people in Montreal and met Regine,"” Butler said. “"The second lineup of the band broke up in a tragic way. We were all brought together through a mutual friendship and respect for each other'’s stuff, and just started playing. It was really natural; we wanted to play together and it grew out of that. There wasn'’t any brand or design; it just came out naturally.”"

This unforced evolution shines through in Funeral’'s cohesiveness, even as it aims for the epic. Amidst all the solid craftsmanship, however, there are two crucial tracks that manage to stand out. The first is "“Crown of Love,"” a docile waltz about high school love.

“"To me, it'’s a funny story because it'’s about adolescent love,”" Butler said. “"So I think there’'s a certain kind of melodramatic nature to it. It’'s a kind of intense, guilty love which you can only experience between the ages of 16 and 18."”

This honest, irrational love which embodies the song speaks a truth which connects with the rest of the album where desperation and love are only a few steps apart.

The second essential track, “Neighborhood #2,” about the Russian space program sending a dog into space, may be one of the best songs of the year.

"“It'’s a great story about a dog being the first living creature in space,"” Butler said. "“Doing this spectacular thing, but not having food and watching itself fall back into the earth.”"

At first, a disarming accordion introduces the main theme, which eventually turns into sad strings swirling around the melody. Butler’'s distorted vocals preach the story of “Alexander” being sent on a “great adventure.”

But never fear. This great adventure, which will no doubt end in his death, is for the “good of the neighborhood.” The almost anthemic tale possesses an abrasive, unsettling feel, casting the song in a creepy light. Much like the rest of the album, deceivingly catchy melodies are complemented by equally catchy, dark lyrics.

“"It'’s hard to have things that impact you in your personal life not affect your art,"” Butler said. “"But we weren'’t trying to eulogize anyone."”

It’'s a rare event when the hype surrounding a band can be trusted; even less common is an indie band pushing the borders of creativity and expression within the increasingly narrowing genre. Keep putting quarters in.

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