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Snapshot Review: Fanfarlo – Rooms Filled With Light [Canvasback]

Fanfarlo’s 2009 debut album Reservoir was quite a bombastic and enthralling indie pop record that earned them comparisons to early Arcade Fire. The melodies were big and often incorporated violin and horns into their vast soundscape. Singer Simon Balthazar can quite easily channel Zach Condon of Beirut on any given song, so it’s no wonder there were a few mentions of that band as well when making reference points. But no band wants to be pigeonholed, and bearing the status as a second-rate Arcade Fire or Beirut can be a little frustrating. Of course there are worse bands to be compared to. Still, Fanfarlo were conscious of this when putting together their sophmore effort, Rooms Filled With Light. They’ve expanded their sound and instrumental arsenal to work in more synths and samples, among other things. The results are still very indie pop-inspired, but with a heavier 80’s touch. It’s not so impactful you’ll think the band has gone new wave, but a few tracks might bring to mind some great Talking Heads moments. Have a listen to tracks like “Lenslife” and “Feathers” to see if you can hear some of that bleeding through. What’s utterly fascinating about the whole record is that in spite of its broadened influences and instruments, there’s nothing on it that feels retro or dated. The band’s ability to make older elements sound new again goes a long way towards proving they’re more than just a flash in the pan. Still, that pan has so much flash in it, as almost every song on Rooms Filled With Light is extremely well structured to maximize enjoyability and memorability. The band has already technically released 3 singles (or at least 3 music videos) for “Replicate”, “Deconstruction” and “Shiny Things”. Don’t be surprised if additional videos emerge for “Tunguska”, “Tightrope” and “Dig”, as they’re worthy of that sort of attention as well. Delightful as it all is, there are moments like on their debut where the band goes a little too cutesy or twee. They tread into the waters of Noah and the Whale, who are by no means a bad band, just a slightly misguided one. When you’re always looking to that next chorus repetition to hammer that hook home sometimes you forget that the road off the beaten path can sometimes be even more rewarding. For all the satisfaction that comes from broadening your influences, it means less if you play it safe anyways. Fanfarlo have made one of the more addictive records so far in 2012, but it satisfies with all the grace of a summer movie blockbuster. It’s big, loud, brash and will send a little thrill up your spine, just don’t expect to hear it talked about during awards season.

Fanfarlo – Shiny Things (Yeasayer Remix)

Fanfarlo – Replicate

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Show Review: The Arcade Fire + The National [UIC Pavilion; Chicago; 4/25/11]

On a rainy April night, not unlike the few that preceeded it, thousands packed into the UIC Pavilion to witness the third and final show from two of indie rock’s most brilliant stalwarts, The Arcade Fire and The National. Both are out in support of their latest records, The National with their highly acclaimed fifth album “High Violet” and The Arcade Fire with their 2010 Grammy-winning/list-topping third record “The Suburbs”. They’re only playing a select few shows together, basically spanning a couple dates in Missouri, the three in Chicago and one in Indianapolis. It’s an incredibly tough bill to turn down if you love your music, even at the markedly imperfect large venue. Of course the band not only sold out one night in a room that size, but they did it three times in a row, so clearly the demand is there. And better the UIC Pavilion than the even clunkier Allstate Arena or United Center. The first show announced was the Monday night show, which after selling out in a relative heartbeat was then backed up by the Friday and Saturday leading into Easter. Monday never seems to be the “right” day for a show, what with the start of the work week and the general depression that sets in with that. All the rain wasn’t helping either, so there wasn’t quite the electricity in the air you might hope for. The thing about bands is that they don’t exactly have “weekends” or “Mondays”, and if a crowd is not giving them what they need, they’ll either force it out of them or turn in a performance that’s equal with what they’re getting in return. Thankfully both bands seem to do the former, resulting in one of the most exhilarating live shows you’ll find not just on a rainy Monday, but on any day of any week.

This may come as a surprise to nobody, but The National are not the most upbeat band in the world. Songs about failed relationships, political strife and general depression are the norm for them, but they do it with class and style and sharp pop sensibilities, all of which lessen the lyrical pain contained within. Starting their set on Monday night with “Anyone’s Ghost” was perhaps not the most inspired choice. The hook is solid, but it’s a slow burner much like a lot of the band’s material. The standard for many artists is to start strong and draw people in, with most choosing to go with the opening track on their most recent release as it tends to have that same effect. Given that the UIC Pavilion was only a little more than half filled when they started their set though, a fair number of people there were probably fans of The National already, showing up on time to see one of their favorites from the very beginning. You don’t need to sell those people on your band because they’re already sold. Whipping out the “Alligator” classic “Secret Meeting” next, things picked up courtesy of the surging chorus that had singer Matt Berninger screaming by the end – something that you don’t get on the recorded version. In fact, a lot of the songs during The National’s set were brimming with a newfound life and intensity that they haven’t shown often before, evidence of how they’ve grown as a live act in the last few years. Their “hit” “Bloodbuzz Ohio” scored big with the crowd, as did the scream-filled take on “Squalor Victoria”. Arcade Fire’s Richard Parry joined the band on guitar and some backing vocals for “Afraid of Everyone” and “Conversation 16”, which was exciting for some but left a couple brilliant people remarking, “So wait…that guy is in Arcade Fire?”. One of the more random moments in the set was when the band whipped out the “Alligator” b-side “Driver, Surprise Me”, which is not only a challenge to find on record but also to catch a live performance of. Out on a limb, I’d wager about 2-3 people in the entire building knew the song, and the deafening silence in the room was evidence enough of that. The National finished strong though, with a four hit combo that was big on energy and one unplanned moment. The extended outro tacked onto “Fake Empire” was an additional kick in the pants that was earned and exciting. The place was all filled up and naturally went into a frenzy when Win Butler of Arcade Fire came dashing out during “Start A War” to contribute some backing vocals and harmonies. Berninger cracked a smile as Butler exited the stage, commenting, “I thought we said no improvising,” appearing to acknowledge that the appearance wasn’t wholly expected. In the band’s pre-“High Violet” days, “Mr. November” was their standard closing song (in particular to celebrate Barack Obama’s election), bringing energy to spare along with all the screaming promises of “I won’t fuck us over”. This time it was just shy of last, the coveted spot being turned over to “High Violet” opening cut “Terrible Love”. It’s the song they should have started on, but finishing on it was nearly as good. One hour after they took the stage, The National exited triumphant, with the crowd eating out of the palms of their hands and rippling with palpable excitement for The Arcade Fire. It may have been rainy and it may have been a Monday, but the crowd had turned to Saturday and sunny.

The National – Bloodbuzz Ohio
The National – Afraid of Everyone

Buy The National’s “High Violet” from Amazon

One of the more fun things about The Arcade Fire’s current tour is their stage set-up, which features both a classic light-up drive-in movie marquee and a projection screen. Somebody next to me said they didn’t understand how a marquee sign was supposed to relate to the suburbs. Given all the light pollution and the need for an open field, drive-ins theatres were restricted to suburbs and farm towns only, so that’s how the concept makes sense. Prior to their entrance on stage, there were a couple quick “Coming Attractions” that were some old previews for movies where evil comes to the suburbs, otherwise known as bratty, drug-using youths. It was a fun and funny way to put everyone in the mindset for the band’s set, which again dumped the unspoken “start with the first track off your new album” rule but opted instead for the much more energized hit single “Ready to Start”. Not only does the song have a stellar pace, but the title and lyrics tell you plainly that you’d best be fired up and set to get things underway. Like a continued punch to the gut, “Keep the Car Running” hit next and the energy level stayed at a high. People were jumping and singing along at the top of their lungs, giving back to the band exactly what they were shoving out to the masses in the first place. “Haiti” may have been a little more relaxed in its pace, but its tropical vibe mixed with Regine Chassagne’s pixie-like dancing kept the party headed in the right direction. One of the weakest moments on the new record is “Rococo”, primarily for its spiteful lyrics and the sheer ad nauseum number of times the song title is repeated. The dancing stopped and the mood got heavy at the show all of a sudden when that arrived, and it was like the band had shifted into a different gear. What made the live version of “Rococo” essential though was the way that Win Butler sang the song. There was such a raw intensity and spitfire anger pumping out of the speakers that you’ve got to give the guy credit for selling his art. “This is our last night of three in Chicago,” Butler said. “We’re leaving it all on the floor tonight”. The darker side of “The Suburbs” became a theme from that jumping off point, the heart of which was “Suburban War” and “The Suburbs” back-to-back. “Month of May” didn’t lose any of the intensity but picked the energy in the room back up significantly as the band got more heavy metal than at any other time that night.

The third phase of the show seemed to be a return to the “Funeral” days, and a trip through the numbered neighborhoods. As they’ve always done, the band went percussion crazy on “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)”, with everybody that had a free hand banging on whatever they could find with a drumstick. I do kind of miss the days when Richard Parry would strap on a helmet and people would drum on his head, but if they kept doing it the novelty might wear off. The most spirited performances of the evening were naturally saved for last. Win Butler came dangerously close to jumping into the crowd for “We Used to Wait”, but he seemed hesitant to do so after it looked like a few people were trying to grab his microphone cord and wrestle it away from him. They probably wanted to sing, but then again so did everybody. The amount of unsolicited singing and shouting in the crowd was intense, but that’s kind of how you want it to be, a communal experience that bonds everyone, not just the performers. Without a doubt then, the two biggest moments came courtesy of the set-closing “Rebellion (Lies)” and the creme in the encore cookie sandwich known as “Wake Up”. The songs were born to be played in stadiums to masses of people, as evidenced not only in their use via sports advertising, but at the actual shows themselves. Fists in the air, people jumping and shouting in the triumph of the moment. But they weren’t the ones standing tall up on that stage having vanquished a foe. Instead it was the band, and only the band that emerged victorious when it all finished. Like living vicariously through our favorite sports teams though, we’re left with unabashed pride and optimism when it’s all finished, overjoyed that the band we were all rooting for delivered either at or above our expectations. Sprinkle a little “Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains” on top, and serve it up with colorful ribbons and streamers. If you don’t walk away feeling exhilarated after a set like that, you’ve got some serious emotional issues. Weather and moods be damned, The Arcade Fire are your refuge and rock, and you’d be foolish to miss seeing them any chance you get.

The Arcade Fire – Wake Up

Buy The Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” from Amazon

The National – Set List
Anyone’s Ghost
Secret Meeting
Bloodbuzz Ohio
Slow Show
Squalor Victoria
Afraid of Everyone
Conversation 16
Apartment Story
Driver, Surprise Me
Fake Empire
Start A War (w/ Win Butler)
Mr. November
Terrible Love

The Arcade Fire – Set List
Ready to Start
Keep the Car Running
Empty Room
Suburban War
The Suburbs
Month of May
Neighborhood #2 (Laika)
No Cars Go
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
We Used to Wait
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
Rebellion (Lies)
Wake Up
Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains

Album Review: The Arcade Fire – The Suburbs [Merge]

“If you say city to people, people have no problem thinking of the city as rife with problematic, screwed-up people, but if you say suburbs – and I’m not the first person to say this, it’s been said over and over again in literature – there’s a sense of normalcy.”Eric Bogosian

In its first couple seasons, the TV show “Weeds” had an opening credits sequence that was pure brilliance. It starts with a map of open land that quickly develops into the twisting roads of subdivisions with houses lined up right next to one another like a mouth full of teeth. Looking down those fully developed streets you notice that all the houses look similar, all the cars look similar, and even the people jogging around the neighborhood look similar. All of this backed by the Malvina Reynolds song “Little Boxes” from the 1960s which features the lyrics “Little boxes on the hillside/Little boxes made of ticky-tacky/Little boxes on the hillside/Little boxes all the same”. The song was written about the homogenization and conformity of middle-class suburbia, a place where the houses (“little boxes”) were made cheaply (“ticky-tacky”) and uniformly (“all the same”), and the people living there all followed the same life path to continue the cycle. And while that credits sequence along with Reynolds’ song wrap up in under 90 seconds, The Arcade Fire are now coming in decades later to dive headfirst into that same subject matter, but across a 64-minute album appropriately titled “The Suburbs”.

“Everybody’s youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.”F. Scott Fitzgerald

Win and Will Butler grew up in Houston, TX, a city that author Nigel Goslin once called “six suburbs in search of a center”. Calling that sort of environment home serves as a strong inspiration for much of the material on “The Suburbs”. The opening title track sets the theme and overall mood of what’s to come, sketching out ideas about “suburban war”, the follies (“we’re still screaming and running through the yard”) and perils of ADD-riddled youth (“by the time the first bombs fell/we were already bored”), along with the temporary nature of things (“all of the houses we built in the 70’s finally fall/meant nothing at all”). This suburban struggle is in stark contrast with how the band started their careers, opening their debut album “Funeral” with the exuberant “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”, in which two kids talk about breaking out of their snow-buried homes and living free among nature. The way it plays out, timeline and all, you could look at “Funeral” through the hopeful eyes of youth while “The Suburbs” serves as the sequel in which that same narrator is much older and after a hard life now views things from a darker and more pessimistic viewpoint. They may be different thematically, but they’re cut from the same relatable cloth that speaks to our times and empathizes with the good and bad moments of our lives. It’s for that same reason “Neon Bible” and its darkly-themed condemnation of religious zealots wasn’t as effective.

“Youth is easily deceived because it is quick to hope.”Aristotle

One of the challenges that “The Suburbs” faces is the lack of massive and explosive choruses. That’s almost to be expected given the subject matter, but it does make the full album a little tougher to swallow than you might expect even though the individual songs are among their most accessible to date. The Arcade Fire don’t really do “small” songs, but the fair amount of restraint shown on tracks like “Modern Man” and “Deep Blue” is somewhat admirable. It’s about building towards something, and those calmer tracks are needed, and songs like “Wasted Hours” and “Sprawl (Flatland)” also fit that bill well without getting too bogged down in somber Neil Young-ian folk. There’s a whole segment on the second half of the album that starts to blend together if you’re not careful, and the loud and brash “Month of May” seems almost purposely inserted in there to break that up, with somewhat mixed results. But the track sequencing is actually more important than ever on “The Suburbs”, and aside from a few big highlights such as “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, “Half Light II (No Celebration)” and “Empty Room”, the rest of the album makes the best and greatest impact when listened to from beginning to end. Within that full album context, there’s very little that seems like it could be cut while maintaining the overall thematic arc.

“You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt, as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope and as old as your despair. In the central place of every heart there is a recording chamber. So long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer and courage, so long are you young. When your heart is covered with the snows of pessimism and the ice of cynicism, then, and then only, are you grown old.”Douglas MacArthur

In this single song obsessed society however, it’s unlikely that most of the people purchasing this album will ever hear the entire thing in one sitting more than once or twice. Our society’s impatience and constant push for instant gratification is largely tackled on “We Used to Wait”. Butler begins the song by talking about the now old school art of letter writing, and how “now our lives are changing fast/hope that something pure can last”. In the final minute, he mentions what music is like today, stating, “We used to wait for it/now we’re screaming ‘sing the chorus again'” before indicting himself as well by changing the “we” to an “I”. Funny then how the song closes out with the chant “wait for it” while the chorus never does reappear as the song fades out and is replaced by the sound of cars speeding down the highway – another reference to our fast-paced society. There are other small indications that lyrically read like Butler has a problem with hipsters as well, which is amusing considering how many of them are Arcade Fire fans. The entirety of “Rococo” seems to be a pointed insult, with lines like, “Let’s go downtown and talk to the modern kids/they will eat right out of your hand/using great big words that they don’t understand” and making light of the unending blog hype cycle by saying “They build it up just to burn it back down”. Perhaps he was just being ironic.

“To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable.”Oscar Wilde

Sonically, “The Suburbs” is close to your average Arcade Fire record. There are plenty of things going on in each song to make them seem busy, but never TOO busy. You’ve got some standard big-time orchestral fare with tracks like the Owen Palett-arranged “Empty Room” and “Sprawl (Flatland)”. There’s the introspective folk of “Wasted Hours” and “Suburban War”. The plodding piano and guitars of “The Suburbs” and “We Used to Wait” are also familiar territory, as are the high energy electric guitars of “Ready to Start” and “Month of May”. Where the band switches things up are mostly on the two “sequel” songs of “Half Light II (No Celebration)” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”. It’s there that they get heavy with the synths and push towards an 80s vibe. You can hear bits of Depeche Mode and Blondie pushing through, and there’s little coincidence that the album’s best song “Sprawl II” comes nearly face to face with the classic “Heart of Glass”. While an album with plenty of synths might work on some level for the Arcade Fire as the pipe organ did on “Neon Bible”, they were far better and smarter to blend their various trademarks together here, as it keeps things interesting across the 16 tracks and 64 minutes.

“It is an illusion that youth is happy. An illusion of those who have lost it.”William Somerset Maugham

Those looking for The Arcade Fire to repeat their mindblowing success that was “Funeral” will more than likely come away from “The Suburbs” a little disappointed. Given that the two records are spiritual cousins however, there’s plenty to still get excited about. It’s wonderful to hear the band come out of the funk that “Neon Bible” put them in and return to something a little more basic. The concepts on “The Suburbs” are very much broad-stroked, and that’s on purpose to give you the easiest route to grasping and relating to the material. So there’s plenty of the old ideas, a touch of the new, and a maturity that’s necessary in these tough times. This may not be an album to get lost in given how steeped in reality it is, but what it lacks in escapism it more than makes up for with high, sweeping drama that reminds us, as George Bernard Shaw once said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” Living in the suburbs among the mass-produced houses and carefully planned subdivisions was never really as great as we seem to remember it. Win, Regine and the rest of the band spend “The Suburbs” trying to remind us of that, with the hope we’ll avoid making the same mistakes with our children as our parents made with us. Most of us have lived long enough to realize that life typically doesn’t go the way that we plan, and as life passes you by, so do many of your dreams. Depressing as that may be, we owe it to ourselves and to future generations to keep on trying each and every day to make this world a better place. If you’re looking for one, perhaps this record will be the wake-up call you need to avoid being drafted in yet another “suburban war”.

“Slums may well be breeding grounds of crime, but middle-class suburbs are incubators of apathy and delirium.”Cyril Connolly

Stream the full album at NPR for a limited time

Buy “The Suburbs” from Amazon
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