Every Tuesday, Dan Weiss runs down the week’s new full-length music releases, from charting hits to more obscure depths, the underrated and the overrated, from a critical pop fan’s perspective.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Arcade Fire – Reflektor (Merge)
When I interviewed the Dismemberment Plan’s Travis Morrison in 2008, we discussed Sasha Frere-Jones’ then-recent piece for the New Yorker on indie-rock having no “black” music in it, no rhythm or soul influences. Morrison scoffed and sang part of Arcade Fire’s “Crown of Love” to me as an example. “That’s not a soul song?” Four years earlier, when I’d first heard Funeral without knowing it would go on to the biggest critical success of the 2000s — I called it “Bright Eyes with disco breakdowns.”
It’s remarkable how in merely four years, my belief downshifted from the idea that they had more groove than the then-status quo for indie, to agreeing that this was the most straight-laced, monotonous thud of the current boom. These are musical observations, not critical judgments; their relatively neglected second album Neon Bible (a mere 8.4 from their definitive champions Pitchfork, between a 9.7, 8.6 and this week, 9.2) is second only to Wussy’s Funeral Dress as the most melodically perfect song-for-song cycle of the 2000s. What it wasn’t: dynamic, funky or bottomless. Follow-up The Suburbs was even more uninteresting, with many more songs but only two classic tunes, the curmudgeonly “We Used to Wait” and the enormous synth march “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” sung by Régine Chassagne, frontman Win Butler’s wife. It won the GRAMMY for Album of the Year and even after years of surprise No. 1 albums, indie-rock finally broke through the one ceiling that Nirvana and Radiohead never could. This is because they’re so normal, an ideal reflektion of the people who perceive themselves to be the norm. But more on that in a minute.
Better than Radiohead ever were but far less exciting, Arcade Fire is in a less enviable position than their great many non-critics think: change or die. Listen to the hype and you’ll hate Reflektor on principle, that it’s somehow unpredictable or daring or not at all exactly what a Caucasian band in their position is expected to do: explore the other. If that sounds familiar, well, U2’s Joshua Tree won Album of the Year as well, picked up a few famous friends for Rattle and Hum, and embraced “pop” with Achtung Baby, which desperately tried to soak up electronics from its Berlin origins. On Reflektor, once again the world’s straightest band ran out of tunes and finally decided to listen to something besides Springsteen. While U2 were tighter songwriters when they hit the mark (there’s no “One” or even a “Mysterious Ways” here), you can trust Arcade Fire, who’ve always known an extended groove even if they’re only belatedly interested in making it dance. All but four of the songs on these two-discs-in-85-minutes finish under five minutes, with several over six and one synth-braised 11-minute closer. Not one outstays its welcome, in fact it’s a hell of a lot breezier than The Suburbs because with producer James Murphy’s help it actually moves and turns, in and out of view, though not usually as danceable as indie-rockers will claim. Don’t dare compare it to Talking Heads, whose complicated rhythm guitar showed an understanding of African polyrhythms, a burden better saddled with the great Vampire Weekend. But even more than U2, with Edge’s one-note guitar and Bono’s fluttery vocal window-dressing, this band constantly proves themselves greater than the sum of its parts.
And they sound like a sum indeed. There is no sole director of a rickety jam like “Afterlife,” where choppy wah-synths worthy of King Sunny Adé vie with a Classic Coke chorus that wasn’t too good for the Beatles: “Can we work it out?” Fittingly, “Joan of Arc” also paraphrases Radiohead’s “High and Dry”: “They’re the ones that spit on you.” But the key track is “Normal Person” a glam-rocker where Butler sneers that he’ll never be as cruel as the normal people, aka the majority of his fans. It’s that humanism, that identification with the Other, not the so-called encyclopedic greatness of their new electronic “influences,” that truly separates them from Bono or Thom Yorke (or the stodgy David Byrne for that matter), that makes Reflektor palatable, their second-best album. Why’s Neon Bible still better? Because from Fela Kuti to Carly Rae Jepsen, you can find better things to dance to.
Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time (Capitol)
Like Robyn, Sky Ferreira’s an indie folk hero because she survived the creepy rigamarole of major-label sexism, from perverts to prefabricators. She knew she deserved her own sound, and with last year’s “Everything Is Embarrassing,” she at least got the world’s attention, the first step to achieving it. But after all the hullabaloo, her sound turns out to be 2013’s blown-out, droning pop production trained on an older sound: guitar-rock. As guitar-rock is preferable to anything pop has coughed up in 2013, this was a great idea. Half the songs on this flash of inspiration (reportedly laid down just weeks ago) will bowl over those without expectations, and three clearly reference the patriarchy that’s failed her: “Nobody Asked Me” (“if I was okay”), “I Blame Myself” (“for my reputation”) and of, course, “Boys.” “24 Hours” and “Ain’t Your Right” are just sweet. And the chorused guitar on single “You’re Not the One” is straight up “Answering Machine” by the Replacements cut with Kylie Minogue of “Loco-Motion.”
The Flaming Lips – Peace Sword (Warner Bros.)
Wayne Coyne’s American Gangster: he saw Ender’s Game and remembered The Flaming Lips made their name off orchestral-stadium sci-fi. Except the burnt studio-molasses muck of Embryonic was better than the bright ‘n goofy Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. But I bet Jay Z prefers this to The Terror.
Bad Religion – Christmas Songs (Epitaph)
Kids who felt religion evil enough to name their band after it are now dads who understand the familial entertainment value of turning “White Christmas” into a “I Wanna Be Sedated” riff. It was a relief of them to prove they get the irony by tacking on “American Jesus” at the end.
Kelly Clarkson – Wrapped in Red (RCA)
In many ways, a Christmas album is the ideal Kelly Clarkson: singing her lungs out is the only thing she’s good for, and her fans-since-Idol, thank God, already know the material. But while she rocks up “Underneath the Tree” pretty good, your life won’t suck without this. And “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is still more rape-y than a thousand “Blurred Lines.”