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If ‘The Suburbs’ had a tagline, if could read ‘Now with 40% more Arcade Fire!’. The album is longer, the songs bigger, the concepts sprawling. And it couldn’t sound better. It proves that despite a three year wait between albums, the band hasn’t run out of creativity or surprises. They have managed to actually get better at what they do, namely, deliver monstrously orchestral rock songs with emotional hurricanes at their cores. ‘The Suburbs’ takes the drama and anger and sadness of their previous albums ‘Funeral’ and ‘Neon Bible’ and directs it to the malaise of the ordinary. Singer Win Butler sounds like Francis Ford Coppola when he says that the album “is neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs, it’s a letter from the suburbs.” The greatest triumph of the album is that even with the mundane subject matter, the songs are richer and more varied than ever.

Things open up with the eponymous, intentionally misleading bright single. It sounds like a lazy summer evening, with the band practicing on the front porch, singing about overpasses, grass and grabbing the keys. But it steadily shifts tone until the final confession at the end: ‘In my dreams we’re still screaming’ and music segues cleanly into ‘Ready to Start’. The band plugs in the guitars, layers on the production and reminds you, HEY! You’re listening to Arcade Fire! The effects shimmer and the sounds builds until the final minute when you know things are going to veer again and burst into something glorious.

‘Rococo’ brings a bitter indie stomp with hints at the harder rock sounds to come. ‘Empty Room’ follows with a busy flurry of strings before things fall into ‘ City With No Children’ which sounds of all things like Kieth Richards playing a lick for Bruce Springsteen. Butler sings about ‘The summer that I broke my arm’ and ‘We listened to the engine failing’, delivering lyrics like Polaroids.

For however outstanding the first half the album is, nothing can prepare you for the spectacular trilogy of highlights in the second act. ‘Half Light II’ is a densely layered crystalline cathedral of sound, with gentle synth beats and languid strings over rushing guitar melodies. It reaches the highs of ‘Wake Up’ and ‘No Cars Go’ while still keeping an air of gentle flow rather than full on bombast. The songwriting is some of the most personal and soul bearing on the album as Butler sings ‘Wanna wash away my sins/In the presence of my friends.” It’s a blunt confession that breaks your heart just for being so honest. ‘Suburban War’ is almost as good, with a grand finale that builds tension without ever completely resolving it, keeping the listener feeling slightly uneasy to the end. The trio of songs resolves with ‘Month of May’, one of the several stylistic surprises on the album. Just when you expect another orchestral anthem, the song bursts out of the gate with a jagged driving guitar which never lets up. It’s the most straightforward rock song Arcade Fire has recorded, but it still fits the tone of the album, with a jittery nervous mood. It’s a masterful transition from song to song, changing styles but holding onto the thematic integrity.

The final act turns further inward, and at times feels like the band might be repeating themselves. ‘We Used to Wait’ is the kind of song that seems too easy for them to crank out at this point. Nervous lyrics? Check. Layered, dense production? Check. Slow burning, building finale? Check. On ‘Funeral’, this would have been a highlight. On the epic ‘Suburbs’, it’s just another chapter. It’s a minor gripe, since it feels like complaining about having too much of a good thing.

The final surprise is possibly the best: ‘Sprawl II’ is a full on new wave dance track. Arcade Fire has always shared a thematic kinship with bands like Talking Heads. But they’ve never fully embraced the sound until now. If you check your music player to make sure Blondie hasn’t gotten mixed into the album, you’re not alone. Even with the throwback sound, it’s still is unmistakably modern. The synths are lush and beats clean as candy. It’s a unusual achievement since it is both unique in the Arcade Fire catalog and one of the best tracks they’ve ever recorded.

The only issue with the album could be the length. At just over an hour, the album is a good fifteen to twenty minutes longer than their previous LPs. But it’s hard to pick out any songs that don’t belong or that should have been left out. Sequencing and rhythm are important on a conceptual album and everything here is exactly where it should be. The third act does slow down, but that only makes the final impact of ‘Sprawl II’ that much more dazzling. Arcade Fire has delivered another instant classic, a document of today. This is what daily life feels like, living in the post-Bush era. Yes, things got a little better, we avoided the apocalypse, so why are we still so unsatisfied?


If you miss the days when The Beastie Boys brazenly sampled rock and roll and threw monster party beats on top of their frequently humorous rhymes, you’ll appreciate where emcee Macklemore and DJ Ryan Lewis take their collaboration ‘The VS EP’. Lewis openly pillages popular indie rock for the hooks, which he picks apart and then adds layers of production, strings, horns and thunderous beats. Macklemore, a proud Irishman (as you’ll hear about on ‘Irish Celebration’), will make you forget you ever heard of House of Pain. His raps are introspective, empowering and frequently beautiful without becoming trite or self congratulatory. And yes, he can make you smile with a well placed humorous wink.

Some listeners will be put off by the popular, easily recognized samples. But even if you don’t care for the smirking glam of The Killers, you’ll find yourself captivated by the slow boil of ‘Life is Cinema’ which borrows ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’. The song suddenly sounds dangerous in Lewis’ hands, and Macklemore’s sharp delivery conveys his intense will to change, to fix mistakes..

Transformation, change, awakening run central to the album’s themes, most dramatically on ‘Otherside’ which chronicles Macklemore’s experiences with drug use, first observing tragedies around him and then turning the light inward as he reveals his own battles and the humbling realization that he is as vulnerable to addiction as anyone.

Macklemore’s delivery is always clear, elegant and well measured. He’s less concerned with verbal acrobatics and more with clear, rhythmic story telling. Every track has a unique feel and narrative and it would be hard to cut any one of these seven songs. A giddy highlight comes near the end with ‘Irish Celebration’, as good hearted a drinking song as you’ve ever heard.

Even if you’re not into hip hop and can’t be bothered to seek out the underground artists that make it worth attention, ‘The Vs EP’ is worth notice. This is a cross genre experiment that shaggy indie rockers will enjoy just as much as the hippies and the skaters. You’ll hear instantly recognizable riffs from Red Hot Chili Peppers, Antony and the Johnsons, Beirut and Arcade Fire (who sound even MORE epic in this format). And through it all is Macklemore’s simple, engaging storytelling and Lewis’ exuberant productions.

And if that’s not enough to get you to listen, consider this: Macklemore and Lewis have made it available for a free download. You can get it right here:

1 – Tool ‘Lateralus’

2 – Green Day ‘American Idiot’

3 – VNV Nation ‘Of Faith, Power and Glory’

4 – Arcade Fire ‘Neon Bible’

5 – Tom Waits ‘Alice’

When ‘Terrible Love’ opens The National’s newest album ‘High Violet’, you might catch yourself checking your speakers to make sure there are no loose wires. The first 15 seconds are pure lo-fi fuzz, an airy ode to My Bloody Valentine. But then Matt Berninger starts his instantly identifiable drone, which pierces the static like a sheet of water. What began as a gentle wake up slowly builds until the the reverb fills the room and Berninger repeats over and over “It takes an ocean not to break” and the band hits a layered, uplifting crescendo that would make Arcade Fire smile. It’s a powerful track one, and it’s only a teaser of what is already the best album of the year.

It still sounds like The National, but they’ve never sounded this awake. Berninger, always understated, sometimes monotone, delivers soulful, literate, stream of consciousness thoughts in a delicate baritone that sounds like he might splinter apart if pushed too far. But he keeps pushing this time out, finding a range to match his soaring emotions. Sometimes it’s an awkward stutter like on ‘Afraid of Everyone’ where he sounds like a record jumping grooves ‘Your voice is swallowing my soul-soul-soul’. It turns to pure silk on ‘Sorrow’ where the band plays a sparkling angelic driving beat as he half whispers, as if he might be ashamed to admit it, that ‘I don’t want to get over you’. And on ‘England’ it becomes an operatic, layered projecting chorus. Even if you can’t fully decipher the words or the meaning behind the lyrics (’cause all the silver girls gave us black dreams/leave the silver city/to all the silver girls/everything means everything/I was afraid I’d eat your brains /Cause I’m evil’ on ‘Conversation 16’) you can gather connotation from how he sings. Like The Cocteau Twins or The Talking Heads, the meaning of these songs does not come through a concrete narrative, but through a texture of words, sounds and inflection.

The band displays a similar broadening range, moving between the gentle chamber indie-folk of ‘Runaway’ to the slow burning storm of ‘England’ to the towering anthem of ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’. Everything sounds thickly layered, with horns and strings washing through and choruses of backing vocals adding further depth. It’s a wall of sound, but it never sounds muddy. Even the lo-fi fuzz on tracks like ‘Terrible Love’ comes gently and feels comforting. Indie rock likes to sound pretty, but it rarely hits the highs that ‘High Violet’ reaches on every other track.

‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ deserves special mention. The first single from the album, it’s also the first song by The National that actually deserves to be released as such. For a band that willfully kept their heads down and played to the critics, ‘Bloodbuzz’ sounds like a wake up call. The drum beats burst out of the gate, hurtling the song into a lush, spiraling wall of sound and the best use of piano in rock and roll since Pink Floyd’s ‘Us and Them’. It’s an epic road trip of a song, one that will raise hairs on your arms and make your chest hurt with the staggering beauty of it all. As it climaxes in a final rush of insistent pounding tides of sound, you’ll find yourself looking for the repeat button. ‘Bloodbuzz’ is easily one of the best songs of the decade.