Saturday, April 20, 2019

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs

Release Date: August 2, 2010

Active Members: Win Butler, Regina Chassagne, Will Butler, Jeremy Gara, Tim Kingsbury, Sarah Neufeld, Richard Reed Parry

Produced by Arcade Fire and Markus Dravs

Arcade Fire's third album from 2010 The Suburbs, the second year of the Obama administration, compresses history and childhood into a flickering romanticism. Wasted time morphs into sacred time. A sober and triumphant album, The Suburbs features Arcade Fire's familiar blend of Apocalyptic angst and Utopian longing.

The album begins with the "The Suburbs", featuring a driving piano in a song that imagines the suburbs as a mythical place, but hardly a lost Eden. The opening stanza blends together a maze of conflicting memories:

In the suburbs
I learned to drive
And you told me we'd never survive
Grab your mother's key we're leavin'

Alienation, entrapment, domestic turmoil, disparate connections, and a dizzying sense of doom are ever present. And boredom.  As the narrator reflects on his childhood he contemplates the future for his children, or whether there will any future for them:

So you can understand
Why I Want A Daughter While I'm still young
I wanna hold her hand
And show her some beauty
Before all this damage is done

Trapped inside the miasma of the past and future the opening track sets the tone of the album, the feeling of coming awake after an intense dream. 

The high octane "Ready to Start" is about pursuing art and "businessmen drinking the blood" of artists. "Modern Man" looks at adulthood with weariness. 

"Rococo" is usually interpreted as a hipster take down, specifically the vapidity of 21st Century hipsterdom with its old timey beards and its conspicuous consumerism under the guise of creativity. Rococo art was an 18th Century style that celebrated aristocratic life in the French countryside, America's fascination with Kardashians and the British Royals sets a direct parallel. The art of being cool and feckless.

"Empty Room" sounds similar to "No Cars Go" from Neon Bible with Regina Chassagne taking the lead on the lyrics in a hymn to solitude. "City With No Children" paints another dystopian landscape as the title describes, possibly in reference to the Alfonso Cuaron film Children of Men from 2006. "Half Light I" imagines a future where life carries on underground after a world war told from a child's point of view, a bleak lullaby:

Our heads are just houses
Without enough windows
You say you hear human voices
But they're only echoes

The companion song "Half Light II (no celebration)" begins with a John Carpenter style synthesizer and reverts back to the present with references to the market crashes of 2008 and natural disasters wiping out cities. The Springsteen sentiments of Nebraska and the Cardigans style pop rhythms are vintage Arcade Fire. 

"Suburban War" addresses lost connections and broken relationships. The song laments music acting as a divisive force. Verses from the "The Suburbs" appear again in a much different context, detailing the fall of a once close friend.

"Month of May" is a rocker about the days before the uprising, but nothing actually happens, "the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight." 

"Wasted Hours" is another highlight, a tender, sensitive song about boredom and being young. Boredom was a primary occupation of punk, the idea of living in an age of dashed expectations - that certain politicians would use to their advantage. Rivers were catching fire and cities were turning into wastelands, the song imagines the fires making their way towards the suburbs. "Wasted Hours" transforms the stifled feelings of the past into a reflective melancholy.

"We Used To Wait" could justifiably be accused of overwrought nostalgia, maybe Arcade Fire at their sincere worst, yet it builds up to a soaring crescendo that moves into something transcendent. Lost connections in the modern world appear paradoxical when communication is ever faster - the transition from Gen X to Gen Y. 

"Sprawl 1 (Flatland)" is a somber song about a return to the old neighborhood where everything and nothing has changed. "Sprawl 2 (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" is the best song on the album, Regina's vocal brings some hope to the hopeless landscapes described on the record. The Suburbs ends with a reprise of the title track, the narrator admitting if he could go back he'd waste it all over again.

The Suburbs conjures a collage of feelings and images amidst all the emotional wreckage of the past and present. The angst of Arcade Fire is on full display - from their aching sentimentality and potent imagery. Not a rock opera in the vein of Tommy or Ziggy Stardust, but a central concept is there: the emotional toll of time moving in all directions at once. Challenging to get through in one sitting, yet The Suburbs yields much in meaning and texture through multiple listens.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Albums of 1967: The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced?

Release Date: May 12, 1967
The Jimi Hendrix Experience Were: Jimi Hendrix, Noel Redding, Mitch Mitchell
Produced by Chas Chandler

Side One

Purple Haze
Manic Depression
Hey Joe
Love or Confusion
May This Be Love
I Don't Live Today

Side 2

The Wind Cries Mary
Third Stone From the Sun
Foxy Lady
Are You Experienced?

Two different versions of Are You Experienced were released, one for the European market and one for the North American. I listened to the North American release.

On vinyl, the Jimi Hendrix Experience sounds more raucous and psychedelic than they do on FM radio. In stereo the record sounds more . . . revolutionary. Hendrix took the London scene of the mid-60s and brought a new sonic dimension that was driven by soul. Using the blues as a foundation point, Are You Experienced delves into many genres - folk, jazz, and rock. The record is a genre onto itself.

"Purple Haze" opened the American version, a song for the Vietnam War that was raging at the time. In the film Apocalypse Now as Willard's crew are traveling down the Mekong River they get deluged with purple smoke at one point and the surfer soldier Lance revels in the psychedelic journey of the war, "purple haze in my brain/lately things don't seem the same." Like Revolver and Highway 61 Revisited, Are You Experienced takes you on a metaphysical journey.

"Manic Depression" used distorted guitar, while Hendrix's bluesy vocal channeled a state of mind that broke new ground for a rock record in terms of content. "Hey Joe" took a classic folk/blues trope of the avenging lover into a three minute epic of heavy guitar, upstaging Led Zeppelin by a few years. "Love or Confusion" is another head trip with a more melodic guitar, a Beatles song from an alternate universe. "May This Be Love" could be a Motown song with its catchy melodies, prodded along by Mitch Mitchel's drumming.The rambling "I Don't Live Today" ends side one on what sounds like an impromptu jam session.

"The Wind Cries Mary" became one of Jimi's most memorable hits, a melodic and haunting love song with some seductive guitar playing. "Fire" became another hit, a commercial jingle in its brilliant simplicity. "3rd Stone From the Sun" is an extended psychedelic jam with some Sci-Fi overtones. The unforgettable riffs of "Foxy Lady" speaks to pure desire. The title track "Are You Experienced?" calls on the listener to expand their mind with its looping guitars, a call from the cosmic mountain top.

Are You Experienced introduced Hendrix to the world and we are the better for it. The year 1967 featured an abundance of riches that would be spearheaded by the June release of Sgt. Pepper by the Beatles to which Hendrix would acknowledge in his live shows. As history has proven: Hendrix could not only emulate his contemporaries, but also expand their music. No one could imitate Hendrix. 

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Albums of the Imagination: Beatles 70/71

I know what you're thinking, another blog post about an imaginary Beatles album. Hey, we live in troubled times, so why not write about the Fab Four? 

The Beatles recording career unofficially ended over the summer of 1969 as the four of them completed work on Abbey Road. As the latter stage Beatles albums indicate they were all becoming separate individuals with different styles and artistic interests. Their output in 1970 and 1971 highlighted their diverging paths in dramatic ways. They had a lot to say. What if the era could be condensed into a Beatles album?

John's Plastic Ono Band burned all bridges with the past with its spare minimal tracks of stunning anger, sadness, guilt, and faint hope. The follow up Imagine in 1971 was more optimistic in outlook, featuring some of the most beautiful songs of the 20th century.

Paul's eponymous solo debut McCartney featured him on all the instruments. Like John's Plastic Ono Band Paul took a minimal approach, sounding homemade and joyously nonsensical. McCartney's 1971 follow up Ram was more muscular and ambitious in scope, setting the foundations of 70s arena rock.

Yet George had the most to say with All Things Must Pass, a triple record magnum opus. "My Sweet Lord" and "What is Life" would become massive hits.

Ringo's underrated two releases of 1970 Sentimental Journey and Beaucoups of Blues are full of stellar arrangements, ideal comedown records after navigating the heady material of his old band mates. Sentimental Journey could be titled "Ringo Goes Sinatra", while Beaucoups of Blues was compared to Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline with its country influences (ironically, future Dylan would spend almost a full decade doing Sinatra).

My idea was not to put together a compilation of the familiar hits, but to highlight the Beatles speaking to each other, sometimes past each other. The four of them stayed with and developed ideas as solo artists that preoccupied them as Beatles. The songs were sequenced with that in mind.

Side One

Valentine Day (Paul)
Wah Wah (George)
I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier Mama (John)
Run of the Mill (George)
Well Well Well (John)
Long Haired Lady (Paul)
Without Her (Ringo)

Side Two

What is Life? (George)
Imagine (John)
Too Many People (Paul)
Awaiting on You All (George)
Love (John)
The Backseat of My Car (Paul)
Stardust (Ringo)

So, what if the Beatles had put aside their differences and decided to pool their resources for at least one more album? Titled simply 70/71, the record was an attempt to address the past, present, and future of the band. 

Opening with "Valentine Day" an instrumental from McCartney that begins the record with a low key, but suggestive fragment, a mock overture recalling the subterranean Quarrymen days. "Wah Wah" was written by Harrison on the day he walked out of the Let it Be sessions out of frustration. George needles John and Paul with lyrics like "You made me such a big star/Being there at the right time/Cheaper than a dime." The high spirited production drowns out the cynical vibe of the lyrics.

Lennon's "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier Mama"  is a tripped out jam that speaks to his anger at the roles society assigns to people. A parallel to "Working Class Hero"" and the agitprop of his 1972 record Sometime in New York City, the track taps into Lennon's growing activism. George's "Run of the Mill" is one of saddest tracks on All Things Must Pass dealing with the fallout of the Beatles break up, produced with unforgettable horns and piano. John's "Well Well Well" from Plastic Ono Band was another primal scream into the abyss, a screed on the counterculture and establishment's inability to effect change. A fade into Paul's "Long Haired Lady" makes for a nice segue way, with Paul crafting a basic pop song into a theatrical extravaganza. Ringo's "Without Her" is a melancholy country tune that brings side one to a subdued conclusion. 

Harrison's "What is Life" opens side two on a high note. The song was a top ten hit in America and the United Kingdom where it was the top selling single of 1971. "Imagine" is Lennon's most important statement as an artist, extending the idea of the Beatles into a post-Beatles world. Paul's borderline menacing song "Too Many People" from Ram is the type of song Lennon would aim at other people, here Paul appears to question Lennon's self righteousness. "Awaiting on You All" speaks directly to the listener, spiritual, yet grounded in reality. The mantra of the song, "If you open up your heart, you will know what I mean" is pan-spiritual in sentiment.

"Love" is connected to many other Lennon songs, "The Word" and "All You Need Is Love" come to mind. On Plastic Ono Band the song provides a respite from the emotional turmoil on the record and speaks to John's maturity as a songwriter. Paul's "The Backseat of My Car" is an elevated rocker reminiscent of Abbey Road that captures the romance and exhilaration of the road. Ringo's jaunty version of "Stardust" ends the album on a lightly comic note, a call back to "Goodnight" on the White Album, an appropriate Hollywood ending.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers #2: You're Gonna Get It

Release Date: May 2, 1978 Members: Tom Petty (vocals, guitar); Mike Campbell (guitars); Benmont Tench (piano, organ); Ron Blair (bass); Stan...