August album reviews – mainly Arcade Fire (with a little bit of Caitlin Rose and The Goodnight Loving)

by Peter Smith on August 21, 2010

Arguably the biggest album of the year for rock fans was launched unusually in August (traditionally a dead time)  – Arcade’s Fire The Suburbs.  I’m a huge fan – ‘Funeral‘, their first amazing album, is one of my top ten albums of all time probably, and their gig at Brixton 3 years ago one of the best I’ve ever seen.

But their last album, Neon Bible, is one of those that has declined somewhat in critical reputation since it was released 2 years ago, and I admit I don’t actually play it very often. It tended to the bombastic and was somewhat hectoring at times, whereas Funeral was an emotional listen from start to finish.

I’m not going to go on about the ‘concept’ of The Suburbs (as many of the reviews did); all about returning to the suburbs blah blah blah. The lyrics seem ‘good enough’ to me, quite interesting in places, but with the rare exception (Dylan basically), I’m more a music rather than lyrics man.

The good news is that The Suburbs is without a doubt the most listenable of their three releases. That doesn’t mean to say it is dull or simple; but you don’t ever feel “I wish they would stop shouting at me” or “can’t they just stop emoting wildly for a second” as you could occasionally with the previous offerings.  It is not exactly stripped back, but there is more space, light and shade than we’ve seen before.

‘The Suburbs’ and ‘Modern Man’ sound at first amongst the most straightforward rock songs the band has done. Good songs mind you, and with clever touches of instrumentation or detail that only start coming through after a couple of listens (Modern Man keeps slipping from 4/4 time signature into 5/4 unless I’m very mistaken.  I knew O level music would come in useful one day…)  And then there are some instant hits.  “Sprawl II (Mountains beyond Mountains)” channels Blondie’s Heart of Glass into a cast-iron Arcade Fire classic and will be brilliant live, whilst the two tracks at the centre of the album (Half Light I and II) are just beautiful songs, anthemic and affecting at the same time in the tradition of Wake Up and Windowstill. Two of these three standout tracks feature Régine Chassagne’s vocals in a major way; an interesting progression from the previous albums.

It is a long album – over an hour – and while it doesn’t drag, you do feel that a couple of songs might have been chopped without any real affect on the overall enjoyment. But it is an excellent achievement overall. Will it push Laura Marling off my Album of the Year (so far) podium? I’m not sure at the moment. Let’s call it a 9/10 and leave a little room for it to grow in my affections!

Just a couple of other brief reviews as I’ve gone on a bit here. This has been a great year for female singer songwriters, and if you’ve liked the Mynabirds and Lissie from my previous recommendations, you should like Caitlin Rose. A little more out and out country (Patsy Cline?) than those two, but strong voice and songs. Not sure it is quite the five stars the Sunday Times awarded, but a good 7.5/10.

The Goodnight Loving from Milwaukee make powerpop / punk / blues /surf-pop and sound like that great bar band you always hope you’ll discover in some back street tavern one dark night in a strange town (and never do). Their fourth album, The Goodnight Loving Supper Club is good unpretentious fun.  It is being streamed (when I last looked) at PunkNews.org, which is of course one of my favourite websites… 7.5/10 again I think.

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