In the first half of the ’00s, thanks to the Constantines, Unicorns and New Pornographers (to name a few), the international indie rock audience finally began to wake up to the long-thriving Canadian scene. In 2004, Arcade Fire became one of the most warmly received and widely celebrated Montreal acts in some time. Propping up a multi-instrumental approach with driving rhythms and rousing guitars, the band crafts engaging, exciting songs with imagination to spare, mixing a diverse set of styles into a wholly original sound.
American-born Win Butler, grandson of swing-era bandleader and pedal steel virtuoso Alvino Rey, formed the Arcade Fire in 2003 with his brother William, Régine Chassagne (whom Win would eventually marry), Richard Parry and Timothy Kingsbury. By the end of the year, the Arcade Fire had self-released an eponymous seven-song EP. While not as accomplished as the band’s later work, it introduces a formidably talented group: augmented by numerous guests, each member handles a range of instrumental duties, mustering banjo, accordion, clarinet, synthesizer, harp, horns, guitars, bass and drums. Win Butler sings with David Byrne’s high-anxiety intensity, while ex-jazz singer Chassagne comes across as exceedingly (or distractingly) Björk-informed, especially on the whimsical, childlike “I’m Sleeping in a Submarine” and “The Woodlands National Anthem.” The driving “No Cars Go” is a clear standout, with martial drums, pulsing bass line and soaring chorus (“Hey! No cars go!”); the simple melody is sustained on accordion and organ. The ringing guitars and tinkling piano of “The Headlights Look Like Diamonds” ride over a clattering, dance-y rhythm section, while the mid-tempo strumming, sparkling bridge and bitter lyrics (“Your father was a pervert / Face down in the dirt”) of “Vampire / Forest Fire” close out the EP in fine style.
Before the band’s first year was out, the Arcade Fire signed to Merge Records and began work on a full-length album, again enlisting a number of guests. The project was haunted by death: the Butlers’ grandfather Rey passed away, as did Chassagne’s grandmother and Parry’s aunt. As a result, the album was titled Funeral. All the same, the Arcade Fire’s first full-length (featuring new permanent member Howard Bilerman on drums and guitar) is an energetic and original statement. “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” fades in with an ascending piano line, a distorted guitar figure snaking between the notes. As Win Butler’s vocals gain in intensity, the drums and bass follow suit, turning the song into a propulsive, pounding shout-along. “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” merges accordion, chunky guitar and stabbing strings into a bracing rocker as Butler tells the tale of a wandering wayward sibling, shouting the lyrics with a combination of wonder and anger (“If you want somethin’, don’t ask for nothin’ / If you want nothin’, don’t ask for somethin’!”) “Une Année Sans Lumiere” has Butler and Chassagne singing (partly in French) a gentle, delicate melody, the instruments supporting the lilting vocals; by song’s end, the band is playing at breakneck speed, all slashing guitars and driving drums. “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” employs a rhythm section from the New Order fakebook, the kick and the snare cranking out a metronomic 4/4 while bells chime and a rubbery bass provides substance to one of the album’s finest tracks. The distorted central riff of “Wake Up” serves as a backdrop to the soaring choir of its chorus. Chassagne takes center stage for “Haiti,” a sentimental ballad chronicling her ancestors’ arrival in Canada from the Caribbean; the song’s breezy, tropical feel is enhanced by the gauzy vocals and steel drums. “Lies” is another gem, and possibly the album’s best track: guitars, piano and strings pump out of the speakers with exhilarating urgency. By the time the finale, “In the Backseat,” has faded out, it’s clear that the Arcade Fire has created an album composed in sadness but radiating joy. Essential.
Named for the novel John Kennedy Toole wrote before A Confederacy of Dunces, Neon Bible is a tremendous follow-up. Dispensing with the giddy exuberance of the debut’s sound, Arcade Fire casts a dark pall over a variety of styles, including intricate orchestral suites (“Black Wave / Bad Vibrations”), bittersweet folk (“Keep the Car Running”) and even a bit of Delta blues fused with prog-rock (“My Body Is a Cage”). Butler’s lyrical observations are razor-sharp, and the band seems capable of mastering anything it attempts. Yet Arcade Fire are at their best when they raise the roof, anthem-style, as on “Intervention,” which blasts organized religion. Nick Cave’s got nothing on a line like “working for the church while your family dies.” A nifty remake of the EP’s “No Cars Go” and the America-dissing “Windowsill” are also standouts. A rewarding, resonant album, Neon Bible ranks among the best indie rock recordings of all time.