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Arcade Fire - Funeral

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Artist: Arcade Fire

Album: Funeral

Label: Merge

Review date: Oct. 11, 2004

Canada's virtues as a haven for creative minds are being extolled by indie-scenesters throughout North America, and the mythologization of the “Canadian aesthetic” is now fully underway. It's a process that sometimes undermines objectivity in evaluating groups from the country – and can often overshadow a band's merits as well as its faults. Hailing from Montreal, the Arcade Fire’s Merge Records debut is impressive, but an excess of praise has been heaped upon the band by tastemakers looking to chew up and spit out the next underground icon.

Funeral, the band's follow-up to their revelatory DIY debut, documents a passionate and thoughtful indie-rock band whose perspectives and convictions are bolstered by their everyday lives. Win Butler and Régine Chassagne are married, Butler’s brother Will joined in 2003, and the title is unfortunately apt: While recording, the band lost family members and loved ones – resulting in an album's worth of grief counseling.

"Crown of Love" is a yearning pop ballad, as good as any post-Beatles work by John Lennon. If anything showcases the band's dynamic, it's this cut. Its '50s progression and plaintive cry for forgiveness places the song somewhere between mawkish and celestial; a middle ground of perseverance through turmoil.

There’s a ragged winsomeness in the band’s ’80s-tinged sound, full of open-ended instrumentation and hazy production, and not without its drawbacks. "Neighborhood #2” suffers from the common affliction of jagged, pointy guitars going through the downstroke motions – when will this trend stop? “Neighborhood 4” is no beacon of originality, either; it apes the worst of Modest Mouse, but redeems itself with a clever guitar figure and expressive lyrics.

Although most of the songs on Funeral deal with personal tragedy and loss, the Arcade Fire don’t sound maudlin; Win Butler’s voice gives the songs an awkward lilt that's cheery even on the most delicate numbers. Somewhere between David Byrne and Tom Verlaine, he strains for notes and usually hits ’em, but his reedy bellows are a just a short step away from annoying. Passionate delivery gets him through, however, and with each listen, what was once grating becomes as comfortable as a pair of old slippers.

Chassagne is a compelling vocalist, and her work in the tune “Haiti” is childlike and serene. Her soft coos aren’t dissimilar to Björk, but drama-club histrionics occasionally bring her closer to Kate Bush territory. She’s a fine musical match for her husband, however, and part of the Arcade Fire’s grace is in the contrasting yet complementary styles the two bring to the band. The interplay with violinist Sarah Neufeld is also lovely; her playing is never ostentatious, and it heightens the emotional impact of the songs.

With such moments of splendor, it’s sad to hear the band constantly devolving into point-and-click DFA-style dance beats. This territory has been well-mined, and the Arcade Fire possess enough vision to discard stale posturing. There is simply too much creative promise in this group to squander. The song “Wake Up” is an ugly beauty reminiscent of Camper Van Beethoven, and delivers a soaring chorus pushing Chassagne’s voice to the fore. The grandiose arrangement soldiers forward, before breaking into a tragic-comic coda with saloon piano plucking the strings of heartbreak. On this number, the group again hits all the right points – optimism in the face of tragedy, and boogie in the heart of the dirge.

If there were more songs like this on the disc, Funeral would be a great album. Marred by indie-rock clichés and occasional over-effort, it remains frustrating.

By Casey Rae-Hunter

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