Saturday, March 10, 2007

Music Reviews: New albums from Arcade Fire, Brand New, Fall Out Boy, and PJ Harvey

Arcade Fire, “Neon Bible”
First things first: “Keep the Car Running,” the second track off Arcade Fire’s “Neon Bible,” is the early frontrunner for song of the year. This Celtic-tinged anthem is stunning; it would be worth the full price of the CD all by itself.
I highlight “Keep the Car Running” because it’s a bit of an anomaly on “Neon Bible,” as one of probably only three or four tracks that sound good independently (the escapist “No Cars Go” would be another, but more on that later). Like the ideal “High Fidelity” mix tape, “Neon Bible” is perfectly paced; the song sequencing pushes and pulls, ebbs and flows in just the right ways. Picking it apart on an iPod would certainly degrade the overall experience.
While Arcade Fire’s debut album, 2004’s “Funeral,” focused on personal pain, “Neon Bible” is directed outward. It features songs that are political without (thankfully) being overtly partisan, as lead singer/songwriter Win Butler taps into humanity’s seemingly global sense of desperation—“an ocean of violence/A world of empty streets,” as he describes it on the sublime “Ocean of Noise.” During “Intervention” he intones: “I can taste the fear/Lift me up and take me out of here.”
The lyrics throughout are dark, a tone set by the opening dirge of “Black Mirror.” Butler is at his best on the markedly Springsteen-ian “(Antichrist Television Blues),” which tells the nuanced story of a man so afraid of what can happen to average working Joes (i.e. they die just going to work when planes crash into their office buildings), he pushes his young daughter to maximize her God-given talent and become a star, “American Idol”-style. The five-minute epic is an inner monologue, as the father tries to escape the system through his daughter, yet knows the entire time he’s treading on shaky ground; eventually he concludes: “O tell me, Lord, am I the Antichrist?”
At times Butler’s lyrical work on “Neon Bible” comes across as overbearing when read straight off a page. His words are balanced, however, by soaring, deep, soulful, surprising, and, more often than not, exhilarating music. The strings from “Funeral” are complemented this time around by a full horn section, harp, gospel choir, and church organ. The tension built through the album finally explodes in Track 10, the aforementioned “No Cars Go,” a full-throttle quest for hope reminiscent of “War”-era U2.
With only a couple missteps (“Black Wave/Bad Vibrations” and the overly self-absorbed closer, “My Body Is a Cage”), Arcade Fire’s new release demands multiple careful listens (try it on a good pair of headphones). It’s an enthralling follow-up that proves all the hype and acclaim surrounding “Funeral” was no fluke. Grade: A-

Brand New, “The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me”
After their pitch-perfect pop/punk debut, 2001’s “Your Favorite Weapon,” Brand New probably could have become, well, Fall Out Boy. Instead, founder Jesse Lacey went the other way, eschewing the easy and obvious for more esoteric—dare I say “mature”—material on 2003’s highly acclaimed “Deja Entendu.”
The Long Island band’s third album, “The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me” (released last November), completes a trilogy of growth for Brand New, the natural conclusion to the work they’ve been doing for the better part of a decade. Building upon the whisper-to-a-scream mode from “Entendu,” Lacey & Co. (most notably guitarist Vin Accardi) stretch in all the right ways. Brawny highlights include the epic opener “Sowing Season,” the slow burn of “You Won’t Know,” and the full-tilt assault of “The Archers Bows Have Broken.”
Amidst all this bravado of raging guitars, hammering drums, and roaring vocals, the ironic highlight and centerpiece of the album is found in the searching, plaintive beauty of “Jesus,” the album’s third track. Set to a hypnotic metronome of a guitar riff, Lacey offers an open prayer to a Savior he’s not sure he believes in—and if he does, Lacey’s not sure he’s deserving, which, of course, is the point of God’s grace. Anyway, the work here encapsulates the essence of the album. Here’s a whiff:

I know you’re coming in the night like a thief
But I’ve had some time, O Lord, to hone my lying technique
I know you think that I’m someone you can trust
But I’m scared I’ll get scared and I swear I’ll try to nail you back up

So do you think that we could work out a sign
So I’ll know it’s you and that it’s over so I won’t even try

I know you’re coming for the people like me
But we all got wood and nails
And we turn out hate in factories

The only glaring problem with “Devil and God” is “Limousine (MS rebridge)”. Not only is this song an unwieldy eight minutes long, its placement at Track 5 bogs everything down at a crucial point. I’m also not thrilled with the unnecessary interlude between “Luca” and “Archers,” or the rather limp acoustic closer, “Handcuffs.”
Overall, though, this is an otherwise fine effort from a band seemingly always on the move. It’s hard to believe the same group of guys made both this record and “Your Favorite Weapon,” but that only enhances the entire catalog. An ambitious concept album about a crisis of faith, “The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me” concludes a fascinating journey. Grade: A-

Fall Out Boy, “Infinity on High”
Perhaps the pressure of being mainstream standard bearers for pop/punk weighs a little too heavily on Fall Out Boy. Because “Infinity on High,” the Chicago quartet’s follow-up to 2005’s excellent breakthrough “From Under the Cork Tree,” comes off as a tepid, labored, forced attempt at trying not to be pigeonholed.
Look no further than lead single “It’s Not A Scene, It’s an Arms Race,” with its faux industrial beat and a chorus that will get stuck in your head for all the wrong reasons, not the least of which is the excessive and unnecessary repetition of “God damn” (ooh, you’re so hardcore Pete Wentz!). This disjointed mess “anchors” a Side One that is surprising only in its lack of energy. “Infinity” doesn’t really get going until Track 10, “The Carpal Tunnel of Love,” but by then it’s too little, too late.
This effort may be disappointing, but it’s not entirely surprising. After all, the band’s past two albums were outstanding, and with a couple of hits they went from relative obscurity to having Jay-Z cameo on their new record. There’s nothing wrong with expanding horizons, but it needs to be an organic change (see Brand New, above); there are hideous stretch marks all over this record. Here’s hoping “Infinity” is just a sign of growing pains. Grade: C-

PJ Harvey, “The Peel Sessions 1991-2004”
It’s not often a live album is considered essential (come on, how many “Live at Leeds” are there out there), but such is the case with PJ Harvey’s “The Peel Sessions 1991-2004,” released last October. Harvey was a close friend of Peel, the legendary BBC broadcaster (who died in 2004), and this fabulous collection of live appearances on his show is a fitting tribute to their relationship.
The songs span Harvey’s entire career, starting with the power-packed trio of “Oh My Lover,” “Victory,” and “Sheela-Na-Gig,” from her debut album, “Dry.” With performances chosen specifically by Harvey, the album also features a nice collection of b-sides. The most striking is “This Wicked Tongue,” a tenacious rocker that was criminally only released on the initial UK pressing of Harvey’s 2000 classic “Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea.” Other rarities include the brutal “Naked Cousin,” which hails from the recording sessions for 1995’s “To Bring You My Love” (another classic, by the way); “That Was My Veil,” from Harvey’s 1996 collaboration with John Parish; and two covers, Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle” and Rainer Ptacek’s “Losing Ground,” previously available only on singles.
My only complaint is Harvey’s choice of “Beautiful Feeling” as the sole cut from “Stories,” but that’s a rather minor objection for what is, in total, a stellar set. Grade: A

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