(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Recording review - Arcade Fire, Reflektor (2013)

New directions with chill funk desperation and synth-pop beats

There’s a moment of cognitive dissonance when the chill funk rhythm of “Reflektor“ kicks in, like seeing a longtime friend with a radical new haircut or finding the short dress that your mother wore clubbing back in 1982. Arcade Fire luxuriates in an exotic, retro lagoon of danceable synth-pop and it’s hard to recognize them at first. The song draws on David Bowie’s early ‘80s catalog, both from Scary Monster s (and Super Creeps) and Let’s Dance, as well as recruiting him to provide guest vocals. Win Butler captures a stylized undercurrent of repressed desperation while Régine Chassagne plays the ethereal ice queen. The vocal pairing against the synth-driven beat evokes the era of bands like the Human League, but the couple’s interaction restores some familiar ground. The first half this this double album repeatedly toys with our perceptions, from the “Billie Jean” bass line on “We Exist” to the Gary Glitter drums on “Joan of Arc.” Along the way, the band appropriates bits of Talking Heads, Blondie and U2. In lesser hands, this would either descend into awkward parody or earnest pastiche (or maybe the other way around). Instead, Arcade Fire creates an irony-free zone around these songs and fleshes out the borrowed fashion with their own character. The focus on disco and dance-friendly beats has a couple of likely sources. Butler has credited the Haitian rhythms that he was immersed in during his visits there with Chassagne. Additionally, James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem) certainly brought both dance mix and post-punk influences with his production help.

The second half of Reflektor maintains continuity, but calls back to the thoughtful reflection the band is known for. The centerpiece for the whole album, “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)”, blends the band’s old and new approaches. While the first tune is oblique in its reference to the mythological couple, the music is exquisite. The moody Two Tone ska groove is backed with busy, syncopated percussion. Tightly reined in and wicked, the arrangement is taut with tension until it releases into an open, psychedelically charged lushness. The second track responds with nervous, bubbling energy as it follows Orpheus and Eurydice out of the underworld. A ratcheting bass and synth washes play against a Krautrock motorik beat, setting up the angelic breakdowns.

Arcade Fire foreshadowed this new direction on their last album, The Suburbs, with techno-beat sounds on "Half Life II (No Celebration)" and the sweet pop of "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)". But they hadn't fully committed yet. Now, they've shrugged off any doubts and they're taking their time to explore their new environs. At 75 minutes, 85 if you count the hidden track, Reflektor sprawls across the two CDs. There aren't any clunkers or obvious filler, but it begs for a leaner edit. On the other hand, maybe it takes that extra time for Arcade Fire to find themselves in the disco lights and driving rhythm.

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