Great Balls of Fire
It's noon on Saturday, the earliest I've managed to wake myself up the whole week I've been at the CMJ music festival in New York. Under the circumstances, it isn't early enough. Frustrated with myself, I throw on some clothes and double-time it out into the cold October air, onto the streets of SoHo, past the yuppies brunching, across Bowery and into the Lower East Side, past Moby's stupid vegan restaurant, over the puddles and through the trash. The Arcade Fire is playing in four hours. Four! The line's probably around the block already. What if I don't -- no, I will. Hustle. Go. Go...
When I arrive at the venue it's all but empty. Figures. Those of us who've been doing the CMJ thing for the past few days are beat like ground chuck; of course no one got here before noon. I belly up to the bar and order a Coke, giving my liver a well-deserved break. People start trickling in.
Two opening bands and three hours later, the small dark room where the stage sits is crammed like a chicken farm. The hallway from the other bar to this room is a clotted artery. Through a window that faces the street there's a frustrated throng of people pleading to get in. It's getting hard to breathe. Next to me a bartender and the promoter get into a screaming match: There are too many people in here. No there aren't. Yes there are. No there aren't...
Mary Jane's Fat Cat, 4216 Washington Avenue
Sunday, January 23. For more information, call 713-869-5263.
"I need to get out!" growls a girl, trying to squeeze her way to the door.
Those of us who have fought for our chance to be here are undeterred. In a few minutes the musicians in the Arcade Fire will take the stage, all seven of them.
"We're the flavor of the month," Houston-bred front man Win Butler had announced during the band's impossible-to-get-into show two nights earlier. True, that. One thousand acts play CMJ each year, and thousands of fans, journalists and record executives converge on the city like a frothing crew of Ahabs. This year's Moby-Dick: the Arcade Fire. A few months ago the band lit up the blogs of those obsessive music geeks whom everyone unwittingly trusts (because, duh, they're usually right), then PitchforkMedia.com, that Dead Sea Scroll of indie cool, pronounced its debut, Funeral, a 9.7 out of 10, the kind of rating the site reserves exclusively for records made by obscure Japanese noise acts and the Ghost of John Lennon.
"Now this I've gotta see," we all thought in unison, and then we packed our bags and hightailed it to New York. Hence the lack of oxygen in the room I'm standing in, the folded arms, the ready glares. We've come to see the Arcade Fire, but in truth, we've come to judge the Arcade Fire, see if it measures up. No band can contend with this kind of hype. No band that I've ever heard of.
The musicians take the stage. Win Butler is wearing a tattered tuxedo smeared in red paint; other members -- Richard Parry, Tim Kingsbury, Jeremy Gara and Win's little brother Will -- are wearing shirts and ties, similarly splattered. The two girls in the band, Régine Chassagne (who happens to be Win's wife) and Sarah Neufeld, have pretty black dresses on. It's as if they're all going to the prom in Peter Pan's Neverland. No, it's as if they're about to play the shit out of that prom. A loud guitar rings out a single dirty chord in sharp staccato pulses:
The drummer starts pounding a "We Will Rock You" beat. BAAASSS-snare. BAAASSS-snare. BOOOM-bap. BOOOM-bap.
Six Lost Boys and Girls walk to the front of the stage and in unison start screaming their fucking heads off, thrusting their fists in the air, wailing, screeching, challenging. It's a force field of sound they build around themselves with their voices, a semi-permeable membrane that deflects all glares, absorbs all the curious, the earnest, the openhearted. Without warning or permission, the biggest smile I've ever had parks itself on my face and refuses to leave. This song is called "Wake Up." It's the seventh track on Funeral, and it is the song with which the Arcade Fire opens every show.
Like Moby-Dick, the band humbles all those who try to ensnare it, destroys the tools of their trade; i.e., words. Funeral is a Rorschach test of sound: Everyone who listens hears something different. I hear the raw simplicity of the Pixies mingling with the charm and fervor of the Flaming Lips, and sense the same camaraderie and enthusiasm in the music as I do in that of those other multi-instrumental Montrealers, Broken Social Scene. I also hear the frayed honesty of the Cure, the wily pop experimentalism of the Talking Heads (there's an Arcade Fire cover of "This Must Be the Place" floating around the Internet, and it's worth looking for). Yet none of that accounts for the interplay of accordions and violins on most of the songs, the homemade percussion instruments that the band members are always beating, the weird keyboards, the occasional steel drum, the fact that Parry and Will Butler spend most of an Arcade Fire show running around the stage just banging on anything and everything -- the walls, the stage, speakers and pipes, even their own singer.
And ohh, that singer. Win Butler makes jokes, but he also gets frustrated. His face can collapse in on itself when he sings, or it can smile at everyone in the crowd all at once. He exudes the perfect combination of come close/go away. His voice screams and pleads, or it whispers suggestively, or it plaintively explains, "I am waitin' / Till I don't know when / 'Cause I'm sure/ It's gonna happen then." Tall and gruffly handsome, Butler commands the stage but never fills it. And when asked about it, he seems perfectly uncomfortable with all the attention his band is receiving.
"Well, I kind of relate to it in that disconnected kind of way," he tells me a few weeks after the CMJ show. "'Cause we're not really experiencing much of anything, except for people talking about [us]. It's kind of like a photocopy of a photocopy. I used to joke about this stuff before, the words 'hype' and 'buzz,' and it just strikes me as so funny. And to have people talking about buzz and hype in association with something I do is just like, 'Huh?' I don't know.' "
Like Funeral's music, its lyrics are joyfully cryptic. I explain to Butler that my ex-girlfriend, upon buying the CD at my recommendation, thought it was a not-so-subtle hint from me that we should get back together. "You change all the lead sleeping in my head to gold / As the day grows dim / I hear you sing a golden hymn / The song I've been trying to say," cries Butler on "Neighborhood No. 1 (Tunnels)." The vocalist, however, doesn't see the connection.
"I'm trying to think why she would say that," he wonders. "I've also heard people tell me that they think that the four neighborhood songs are based on Plato's Republic, the four stations of the soul. I mean, I guess that if you're a philosophy student it's about that, and if you just broke up it's about that."
But speaking of the four neighborhoods, they're definitely clues to something. Funeral is so named because before and during its recording, Parry, Chassagne and the Butler brothers all had family members who passed away, which may be why the work glows with a mix of sadness and celebration. "There's parents and lovers and older brothers and friends and stuff on the record," explains Butler. There's also a neighborhood, the meaning of which Butler addresses matter-of-factly: "It's where the people live, that's where their houses are. People need a place to live, so that's where they live."
One such person is a character named Alexander. He turns up on "Neighborhood No. 2 (Laika)," on which he undertakes a great adventure of some indecipherable kind, propelling himself away from something and somewhere with a speed expressed by urgently beaten toms that rumble into a pleading chorus. "Our mother shoulda / Just named you Laika," sings Butler, with Chassagne belting backup vocals and the music -- accordions, drums, violins, thick guitar chords -- bursting this way and that, an ammo dump on fire. "Our mother shoulda / Just named you Laika / It's for your own good / It's for the neighborhood."
"Laika was the Russian space dog," Butler explains. "He was the first living creature in space. The Russians knew he was gonna die, but they sent him up with a couple days' food just to see what would happen. They had stuff strapped to him just to monitor his heart, just to make sure you could send a living thing into space, so it's this image of this dog floating around, just being able to be the first living thing to see this amazing, beautiful, unbelievable thing, but also about to run out of food and crash into the atmosphere and burn up."
A lust for life, the immutability of death, the loved ones you count on, the same who disappear, the tattered, paint-splattered clothes of memory worn proudly -- somewhere in there exists the music of the Arcade Fire: "So the neighbors can dance / In the police disco lights / Now the neighbors can dance / Look at 'em dance."
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