Album Reviews: Arcade Fire, Los Campesinos!, and a throwback to Lou Reed

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Reflektor

Arcade Fire – Reflektor

I’ve listened to Reflektor, the new album by Montreal’s flagship indie rock orchestra, at least eight times since it was released only a few days ago. I have no regrets. Like many of the albums that have influenced the LP, Reflektor is the sort of record that justifies the existence of the repeat button.

Messy, loose, and deeply flawed, the group’s newest LP is not only their most difficult to pin down — it’s also their best work since their seminal debut Funeral almost a decade ago.

Though the record has received its fair share of acclaim, detractors have cited the LP’s lack of coherence, knee jerk genre experiments, superficial concept and fluctuating tone. To be fair, each of these criticisms carry weight — most egregiously, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice is periodically referenced throughout Reflektor, but never really integrated into the album’s DNA.

However, Arcade Fire’s promiscuous musicality and unhinged performances are the album’s greatest strength. The Suburbs, the group’s previous album and an unexpected Best Album Grammy winner, was heavily conceptual and obsessively micromanaged, whereas Reflektor sprawls and breathes, content to try its hand at disco, dub, electro-pop and chanson with little regard for the expectations that weighed heavy on the record’s release.

The beauty of Reflektor as a listening experience is in catching the tiny inconsistencies, singing along to the seemingly improvised harmonies, and trying to fit together the pieces of the album’s Kierkegaardian themes.

There’s plenty of stock footage Arcade Fire here to enjoy: raucous pop songs, crescendo-core ballads and heartstring-tugging suites are all in supply, each supplemented by a self-aware swing and touches of producer James Murphy’s signature sound that manage to charm rather than alienate.

Though this isn’t the album to upset Funeral’s place atop the Arcade Fire podium, Reflektor is still an extraordinary, unfettered work of art, and one that seems to come at exactly the right time.

 

NoBlues

Los Campesinos! – No Blues

Los Campesinos! make music for teenagers. It’s what they’re good at — from their blithesomely cynical debut Hold On Now, Youngster… to the fast-paced angst of Romance is Boring, the Welsh sextet has excelled at creating catchy, clever and heavily referential indie pop that appeals to the above-average intelligentsia of suburban high schools.

Their fifth LP, No Blues, is a return to form after 2011’s lethargic Hello Sadness, which felt like a calculated attempt to “mature” the band’s sound through sour lyrics and suffocated production. On the contrary, this record is the band’s most elated and likeable effort since their first — and best — albums. Sure, the lyrics are as abstruse as ever, and self-indulgent enough to make Morrissey blush.

However, Los Campesinos! are still one of the best indie pop acts around, and with No Blues, they mean to make sure that no one forgets it.

Though the ten tracks on the group’s latest still lean towards their cardigan-clad Holden Caulfield demographic, older listeners are sure to find something to enjoy, or at least appreciate, here. The six members of Los Campesinos! imbue each song with so much energy and enthusiasm, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the spirit of the whole affair — even if some of their turns of phrase are a little too on the nose.

Musically, the group hasn’t evolved much in the half decade since their genesis: frenetic drums, sprechgesang vocal accompaniment, an occasional keyboard earworm. There are mopey ballads, unabashed pop numbers, self-aware rock and rollers, and even a hint of hip-hop influence.

Though some listeners might argue that No Blues is nothing new for the band, to me it seems that this record is long overdue — a back-to-basics effort that’s far from groundbreaking, but offers a breath of fresh air to fans who’ve been longing for the band’s glory days.

 

MetalMachineMusic

Throwback: Lou Reed – Metal Machine Music

Metal Machine Music is awful. To listen to the album — over an hour of aimless electronic sludge, split across four indistinct parts — is to win a war against your senses. Each minute of the record is filled with so much dissonance, distortion and harsh, polarizing noise that completing the record feels like some kind of achievement, although its creator Lou Reed would disagree: he once quipped, “anyone who gets to side four is dumber than I am.”

In the aftermath of Lou Reed’s recent death, it’s strange to reflect on this record, one which many consider the inarguable nadir of his creative output. Though it was released to universal critical malign, it sold fairly well — probably to well-meaning Transformer fans looking for another series of upbeat glam rock numbers. Nowadays, the album has its fans: when Reed found a touring band willing to perform the album live back in 2010, all of his shows sold out.

In the liner notes, Reed claimed that he had invented heavy metal. Though this claim is often cited as evidence that the record was an elaborate joke, it’s hard not to feel the devil-may-care energy of Metal Machine Music in punk, noise rock and industrial music.

The record itself might be better off judged as a statement, anyway: it was released during a period of tension in Reed’s creative career and at the tail end of a strained recording contract with RCA. The thought of Reed handing in the master tape of Metal Machine Music, tailor-made to be as offensive and unmarketable as possible, is as indicative of his nature as any of his performances.

An artist is only as good as his worst album, and Metal Machine Music is so bad, it’s legendary. It’s been discussed and analyzed to the point of overshadowing some of Reed’s best work — is it a joke? Is it a message? Is it a masterpiece? All that we do know is that it’s enough to fry your eardrums, and make you wonder what the hell Lou was thinking.

Rest in peace, you beautiful bastard.