Photo by ERIC ASHLEIGH
BY JONATHAN VALANIA The jagged through-line of agreed-upon rock n’ roll history is marked by epic strategic blunders and stylistic reboot fails that will live on in infamy. The Grateful Dead going disco, Jefferson Airplane becoming Jefferson Starship, REM attempting rap (nothing personal KRS-One, it wasn’t you it was them), the Rolling Stones hiring the Hell’s Angels to keep the peace at Altamont, to name but a few. Add to the list the Arcade Fire getting ‘funk to funky.’ Or trying to, anyway.
There seems to be two schools of thought on Reflektor. A) It’s their answer to Exile On Main St. or Achtung Baby or Kid A, i.e. a radical reinvention posing as a hot, brilliant mess. B) Same old white boy indie noise, now with more sex and bongos and less feeling. To me it sounds like the latter, as unfairly dismissive and mean-spirited as that may be. Hey, we’d all like to be Rick James, bitch, or at least Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Just like we’d all like to be LeBron James or Dr. J. But we’re not. We’re just not.
Hard for me to put my finger on why I had such a viscerally negative response to Reflektor but I’ve thought about it a lot and I’ve come up with three reasons. First, I really like the Arcade Fire and expect better. I am, after all, the guy who wrote this in the Inquirer the last time they came through town:
In a more accurate world, if you looked up anthemic in the dictionary, you would invariably find a picture of the Arcade Fire. Rousing, heartfelt and everyone-can-sing-along have been, heretofore, the hallmarks of the Montreal band’s recorded output. The just-released The Suburbs, which largely eschews the fist-pumping chorales of previous outings in favor of low-boil brooding, may well change all that. But Monday night at the Mann Music Center The Arcade Fire got back to what they do best: passionately pounding out sweeping, densely-layered, stadium-shaking soundtracks for people who have long ago made peace with the fact that sooner or later the world will break your heart. If nothing else, Arcade Fire proved that the profound sense of loss — of innocence, of control, of loved ones dead and gone — that is so central to their music has a mass resonance that transcends the parameters of pop, and when shared with 7,500 kindred spirits on a cool summer night it becomes a celebration of sorts. Message: everybody hurts, but we are all in this together. MORE
Second, it’s inconceivable to me that you can get LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy together with Arcade Fire and make a shitty record, so maybe I’m just bitter about being proven wrong.
Third, it’s also inconceivable to me that you can get David Bowie together with the Arcade Fire and make something instantly forgettable, but maybe that just points out the shortage of my imagination. Word to Win: If you’re not going to do a straight up duet with one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th century, you should have had Bowie do something wordless or percussive or recurring. Like that heavy breathing thing on The Zombies’ “Time Of The Season” or the shouty chorus of Wings’ “Jet.” (And you guys should start covering the latter, post haste.)
But, I am a forgiving man. Maybe Reflektor‘s boogie down production just needs to be heard in the heat of the passion of the live moment. So I went to see them play at the Wells Fargo Center last night with an open mind and…well, it still sounds like Mormons discovering sex and bongos to me. And live, the bongo players (conga players, to be exact) are…wait for it…B-L-A-C-K. Talk about unforced errors. Not since the Beach Boys hired Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar has sonic tokenism seemed so forced, ill-advised and ill-fitting.
Speaking of ill-fitting, Win Butler remains The Worst Dressed Man In Rock. Last night he was rocking what looked like a black sports coat somebody used to clean up a white paint spill, acid-washed mom jeans two sizes too small and some loudly patterned shirt for additional sartorial clash. I’m not even gonna go here — but suffice it to say that if he is getting fashion advice from his wife, he needs to get a second opinion.
“Joan Of Arc” was in clear violation of The Fourth Commandment of Rock which clearly states if you are going to simply rip off Gary Glitter’s beat, your song must be better than “Rock ‘N’ Roll (Parts One & Two).” Ain’t happened yet, don’t expect it ever will. Interpolating Lady Gaga’s “Do What U Want (With My Body)” into the middle of “Rococo” turns out to be as bad an idea live as it sounds on paper, and beating up on Katy Perry for being artistically bankrupt corporate pap for babysitters is like shooting dead fish in a barrel with a machine gun. It’s like calling Elmo ‘immature’ or Tinky Winky ‘gay.’ But credit where credit is due, the one instance where the band’s newfound discovery of off-white rhythm actually worked was their live retrofitting of “The Suburbs” (arguably their last great song, to date) with the “Billie Jean” beat. That was pretty cool.
Still, the suckiness of the new material was only underscored by its proximity in the set list with undeniably great songs like “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” and the mighty “Wake Up.” And why, Lord, tell me why would the Arcade Fire play a concert where they DON’T do “Black Mirror,” arguably the greatest David Bowie song since “Heroes”? I’m only half kidding when I say that on the tragedy scale, that’s right up there with AIDS and 9/11. There were people in tears in the parking lot afterwards. Never forget. Never forgive. Disco still sucks.
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