Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Rate The Albums: The Arcade Fire

Fresh off an incredible headline performance in Marlay Park this summer alongside the Pixies, The Arcade Fire have long had a special affinity with the Irish nation due to our passion for the Canadian super group ever since they arrived on the scene a full decade ago. After the release of fourth record Reflektor last year followed by their most epic of tours to date, it seems there's no better time to take a look back on the discography of one of the world's best bands and determine which was their greatest moment.

4. Reflektor

Reflektor arrived at the end of last year largely to the same critical reception as the band's previous trio of releases, but for the first time since their beginnings there were also small voices of dissent and disappointment raised at this new work. The explanation for such was simple- having spent nearly a decade at the top of the mountain with their perfected brand of glorious alternative rock, it was time to let loose and experiment.

This change came in the form of LCD Soundsystem retiree James Murphy's inclusion as producer on the record, a move which paid off in dividends and resulted in a pulsating, irresistable heartbeat that flowed throughout Reflektor's lengthy tracklist on highlights like the opening title track and penultimate beauty ''Afterlife'', as well as anthems like ''Normal Person'', ''Joan Of Arc'' and centerpiece ''Here Comes The Night Time''.

Detractors who point to the albums length and exploratory sound are missing the point- for true fans of the band these accusations will prove unfounded, with length acting as a gift rather than a curse as each sprawling piece is executed carefully and precisely with a measured pace to the very last beat. These songs may take time to build, but it's well spent time, and perhaps the biggest compliment you could pay Reflektor is the extraordinary fact that despite its epic length it's never overstated, bloated, or unnecessarily filled; every single moment is totally justified and masterfully executed.

Best Tracks:
Reflektor/Here Comes The Night Time/Afterlife

3. Neon Bible

Neon Bible arrived amidst a wave of heavy expectation in March 2007 and rightly so considering the impact of debut album Funeral in 2004, but fans and critics needn't have worried; inside a Quebec church the band bought for the recording process, Win Butler and co. had crafted an album worthy of its predecessor in Neon Bible.

This time around the band explored worldly, political themes over personal issues and the result was cynical, dark and paranoid examination of religion and government set to a backdrop of contrasting beauty, the like of which only Arcade Fire could produce.

Band staples such as ''No Cars Go'' (previously recorded for a self titled debut EP but in even greater style here), ''Keep The Car Running'' and ''Intervention'' are all found on Neon Bible, but as with all of the band's work this is an album that rewards from start to finish, immersing you deep inside its dystopian world all the way from the mysterious opening sounds of ''Black Mirror'' to the drowning organ climax that is ''My Body Is A Cage'' in one of the defining albums of the 00's.

Best Tracks: Intervention/(Antichrist Television Blues)/No Cars Go

2. The Suburbs

There is an argument to be made that The Suburbs would have made a better double album than Reflektor- standing at over an hour long with 16 tracks, it perhaps could have been broken in two easier than the band's last effort, but on reflection that would have been a terrible mistake as the fluidity and dream-like atmosphere that carry the band's third effort from first to last is what makes it such an instant classic.

Win Butler said he set out to create ''neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs – a letter from the suburbs" and in this quest he succeeded gloriously, crafting a picture so translucent and evoking feelings so personal yet universal that you'll feel as though you've been transported back to your own youth upon the first listen.

While The Suburbs isn't quite The Arcade Fire's greatest record, it's without a doubt Win Butler's finest achievement as a songwriter as the frontman developed on his band's third album into a deeper, more subtle lyrical talent while laying down a chronological map of childhood over the 64 minutes- he starts by declaring so wistfully ''Sometimes I Can't believe it/I'm moving past the feeling'' as he mentally battles his own transforming youth before eventually resisting the urge to ''Quit those pretentious things and just punch a clock'' on one of the band's greatest ever songs ''Sprawl II'', before quietly hypnotizing us to the close with a reprise of that incredible title track.

It's barely a minute long but that beautiful ode reverberates long past the finish of the album as Butler almost whispers to the listener ''If I could have it back I'd only waste it again/You know I'd love to waste it again and again and again''. It's a universal notion but one that cuts deep to anyone with fond memories of childhood and on conclusion, while perhaps The Suburbs is not a love letter to its namesake, it's almost definitely a love letter to ''the feeling''- the one mentioned right from the beginning and the one that stays within you through, that of eternal youth and the pains of eventually growing up and getting older.

United feeling and all inclusive emotion is what The Arcade Fire have always done best, and The Suburbs was so nearly the best they've ever done it, all except on their very first try.

Best Tracks: The Suburbs/Half Light/Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

1. Funeral

Funeral was born out of the loss of several family members for The Arcade Fire in a short space of time- Win and William Butler lost their grandfather, Regine Chassange's grandmother passed away while Richard Parry's aunt also died. But out of the darkness came the light as these combined tragedies paved the way for an album that has been rightfully proclaimed the best of the entire decade.

There will never be another Funeral, despite the countless number of acts who've tried to imitate it since, because the sheer passion, heart-on-sleeve emotion that is captured so vividly within these ten tracks cannot be recreated. Funeral's message is one of triumph in unity, and it couldn't be more fitting for the Canadian nine piece, each of whom combine with a startling range of instruments (violin, viola, double bass, cello, xylophone, glockenspiel, French horn, hurdy-gurdy, mandolin, accordion and harp) to create this one of a kind, lightning in a bottle classic.

In spite of the devastating circumstances that gave birth to Funeral there's an underlying joyful, glorious tone that has defined the band ever since and seen them become international icons as they grew into other genres while always retaining the melodic alternative rock style that populated Funeral particularly on tracks like ''Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)'', ''Neighbourhood #2 (Laika)'' and ''Crown Of Love'', as well as (and perhaps more importantly) its empowering, ferociously uplifting spirit, best exemplified by the album and the band's very best moments on ''Rebellion (Lies)'', ''Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)'' and ''Wake Up''.

Most crucially, Funeral teaches the message of spreading beauty in a sometimes cruel and unfair world, a sentiment that has carried throughout Arcade Fire's career ever since and defined their unique reputation in modern music. For this reason, and for the simple fact that it's quite possibly the greatest collection of songs put to CD in the 21st century, Funeral is The Arcade Fire's crowning achievement, at least for the present.

Best Tracks: Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)/Wake Up/Rebellion (Lies)

Bloc Party

Sunday, 20 July 2014

''Ultraviolence'' Lana Del Ray - A Review

Following a polarizing reaction to Lizzy Grant's calculated transformation into retro indie queen Lana Del Ray on sophomore record Born To Die in 2012, the songwriter returns with Ultraviolence, a name that will resonate quickly with cinema fans worldwide for its association with Stanley Kubrick's endlessly controversial, artistic masterpiece A Clockwork Orange. It's a title that suits Del Ray perfectly from the get go, representing her theatrical style, artistic vision and undeniable ambition while also signifying a growing understanding of her own niche and kind of fan base, meaning that hopefully those who enjoyed the majestic sadness of Born To Die will be in for a more focused, progressive look into the world of Lana Del Ray upon entering her third album.

Opening numbers ''Cruel World'' and ''Shades Of Cool'' kick off proceedings in typical fashion with a series of laid back, slow burning guitar laden tracks that are dominated by Del Ray's all consuming lyrics and delivery as she breathes hooks like ''Shared my body and my mind with you/That's all over now'' on top of throwaway references to sixties pop classics and icons in between. That's particularly evident on title track ''Ultraviolence'', which introduces strings backed by slow drums and repeatedly refers back to The Crystals 1962 track ''He Hit Me (And It Left Like A Kiss)'' in an early standout moment.

Lead single ''West Coast'' was released back in April and although not particularly chart viable, it's thematically representative of the album and Lana as a whole. A better single choice would have been ''Brooklyn Baby'' which washes over the listener with a wonderfully atmospheric guitar and vocal duo. A striking thing about Ultraviolence before its release was the intriguing set of titles found in the tracklist with Del Ray playing up to the perception of her as some kind of stereotype on tracks like ''Sad Girl'' and ''Pretty When You Cry'', but while these could come off as self parody if not executed correctly, they both standout due to the continually impressive duo of Lana's vocal and the electric guitar which has replaced the piano ballad sound of Born To Die in favour of a sleek sixties jazz band vibe that when at its most evocative can penetrate the minds eye with visions of a smokey downtown club in LA.

Another set of curiously titled tunes come next with ''Money Power Glory'' unfortunately marking the only real disappointment of the album as it fails to deliver anything more than a hollow anthem which does no favours to Del Ray's public perception if it was presumably intended as an ironic gesture to doubting critics. ''Fucked My Way To The Top'' is an immediate improvement however, delivering venomous lyrics and an ice cold chorus aimed at an unspecified artist with whom Del Ray is currently feuding, but the best moment of the album is the most delicate- ''Old Money'' is the long awaited ballad of the album in the vein of ''Video Games''. It's a beautifully dark piano led trance with complimentary strings and sorrowful vocals you could drown in as Del Ray begs for the return of a former lover. It's the oldest song on the record according to her having been in the works for five years, and upon listening you'll surely agree that it was time worth waiting. Following this climatic moment of beauty we are ushered out by a refreshingly bluesy, perfectly fitting Nina Simone cover in ''The Other Woman'', a vintage outro that suits the album no end and brings the tracklist to a close on the exact right note.

All considered, the most immediately striking thing about Ultraviolence is its consistency as it continually engages from start to finish, unlike Born To Die at times which had the tendency to venture into ill advised electro lite territory. Ultraviolence is Del Ray honing her sound to perfection as she drowns us in her ultra stylistic brand of sadness while embracing her movie star persona all the while. Detractors who complain of a lack of legitimacy would be wise to view Lana from a new perspective now and consider the likes of Ziggy Stardust before analyzing her again. Like Bowie so many times in the past, Lizzy Grant is playing a part, and on Ultraviolence she's playing it to perfection, giving her character a new level of depth with a set of beautifully twisted melodies.

There are some who would judge this to be more of the same as Born To Die and while that wouldn't be totally wrong, it's never a bad thing- the most important feature of Ultraviolence is how carefully yet purposely Del Ray is striding forward, as she progresses into a complete version of herself on this undoubtedly stronger effort. Ultraviolence proves itself part of a greater evolution for Del Ray, ensuring there will be a great deal more to come in future from this most divisive of artists.


Sunday, 6 July 2014

Kanye West & Pharrell Williams at Marlay Park (2/7/14) - A Review

There were a number of reasons to expect big things from Kanye West and Pharrell Williams in Marlay Park on Wednesday- the Yeezus tour was West's first solo concert series in 5 years and its epic scale has been acclaimed by critics in the US since late last year, with many going as far as to proclaim it one of the finest concert going experiences they'd ever witnessed, while Pharrell is currently experiencing a career renaissance that has seen the eternally youthful producer/songwriter reach even greater heights than with his original hip-hop project N.E.R.D and endlessly creative production duo The Neptunes.

The crowd that gathered in Marlay Park seemed perhaps only at mid capacity and was just as hyped for Williams as West, with a predominately teenage girl following present for Pharrell in particular, and he played up to this contingent straight away and throughout his set, claiming love for the Irish girls in attendance and predictably sending them wild. Unfortunately though it seemed Pharrell addressing the crowd in between songs was the most he used his voice throughout as he appeared to mime the majority of his vocals for the entire performance, often barely making the effort to conceal this fact on tracks like opener ''Lose Yourself To Dance'' and ''Marilyn Monroe''.

The set, while remarkably short, was chosen well considering the crowd involved- Pharrell hand picked a number of songs from his most famous collaborations including Snoop Dogg's ''Drop It Like It's Hot'' and Gwen Stefani's ''Hollaback Girl'' which excited the crowd, although the best moments came from a midsection which featured a trio of N.E.R.D tunes in ''Rock Star'', ''Lapdance'' and ''She Wants To Move''. The finish however left a lot to be desired, as Pharrell combined several his most recent mega hits into one combination, in the process cutting short three tracks that the entire audience were waiting to hear. The result was an obvious disappointment and an anticlimactic ending to an average show as ''Blurred Lines'', ''Get Lucky'' and ''Happy'', all of which should have been highlights that improved the performance, were instead grouped into a rushed ending that defined the set as a whole.


The anticipation burning through the audience was plain to see in the short wait before Kanye took to stage, and upon his appearance around the 9 o clock mark we get down to business pretty quickly with an electric start as ''Black Skinhead'' and ''On Sight'' open the show with plenty of energy and a good response from the crowd, but things go straight downhill from there. The next batch of tracks are taken from a variety of guest features and compilations that featured West rather than his own material, and it's plain to see this isn't what those in attendance were waiting to hear as ''I Don't Like'' (Chief Keef) and ''Clique'' (Big Sean) get a deservedly underwhelming reaction.

Aside from a poor song selection early on it's obvious that Kanye himself is distracted and unhappy, particularly with his tour band, whom he regularly instructs to restart certain tracks when they aren't going his way, resulting in a disjointed feel to the set that continues throughout. Even when we're eventually back on track with a setlist that sounds more like the artist we paid to see (''Can't Tell Me Nothing'', ''New Slaves'', ''POWER'' and ''Hold My Liquor'' restore some order), the disruption continues as West storms off stage several times mid song due to his displeasure with the sound (most notably during half a ''Niggas In Paris'' performance), showcasing that well documented ego and antagonistic persona in the worst possible light in front of a bewildered Irish crowd.

It would certainly have eased the atmosphere if the tracks were up to scratch but even songs that should have been highlights are disappointing, the worst example being 9 minute Dark Fantasy epic ''Runaway'' which is reduced to a boring and unemotional climax that alienates the audience and stands in stark contrast to the studio version, one of West's greatest ever moments. After the lowest point of the set so far, the performances and energy thankfully begin to pick up, and for the remainder of the gig we are finally granted the concert experience that had been expected from the very beginning with highlights such as ''Heartless'', ''All Falls Down'', ''All Of The Lights'' and ''Good Life'' bringing us home with style and triggering an explosion of noise from the grateful thousands in Marlay Park.

After a series of well executed tunes that have finally inspired the crowd, the ending is spectacular to match with Yeezus' finest excerpts ''Bound 2'' and ''Blood On The Leaves'' sending fans into a frenzy, the latter marking the moment of the night as West displays the kind of passion that's been trapped behind the rapper's diamond mask for the majority of the night.  On conclusion, your opinion of the concert may be blinded somewhat by a far stronger second half and glorious finish to match, but the reality must be that this was a hugely disappointing night by the standards you should expect from an incredible artist such as Kanye West.

The fact seems to be that throughout a performance muddled with unprofessional temper tantrums and a complete lack of relationship between artist and audience, Kanye West simply doesn't respect Ireland enough to deliver the kind of performance that has seen the Yeezus tour become so widely acclaimed around the world over the past year. The statistics are self explanatory- America and Australia got 35 songs that spanned the length of West's career and celebrated his magnificent contribution to music over the last decade with a cinematic stage set up, while this Irish gathering of devoted Kanye fanatics were handed down a second rate, festival standard collection of 20 tracks that rarely hit top form. By the end of it all, West's declaration that ''I hope you remember this night for the rest of your life'' comes off less like a statement of genuine pride than another example of delusional self admiration. It's the final nail in the coffin and the final insult on a bitterly disappointing night that proves Kanye's ego is always working hard, even when he most certainly is not.


Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Arcade Fire & Pixies at Marlay Park (29/6/14) - A Review

Marlay Park has been host to a series of excellent summer line ups in the past but this year has surpassed all before with the likes of Kanye West, Arctic Monkeys, Macklemore and Kings Of Leon all paying a visit before Longitude kicks off at the end of July bringing us Massive Attack, Disclosure, Chvrches, Haim and many more. But as if that wasn't enough, there surely is no better way to kick off a summer full of live music than with kings of the genre both past and present. Pixies spent the late 80's and early 90's defining alternative rock and laying the groundwork for bands like Nirvana and Radiohead before Arcade Fire took over the alternative music scene in 2004 and began their path to world domination, one which has culminated in the glorious Reflektor tour in 2014.

The stage was beautifully set for music lovers as the sun beat down on the 32,000 capacity venue in Rathfarnham , Co. Dublin and the atmosphere among concert goers was electric, the kind of unique togetherness which seems to follow The Arcade Fire every time they land in Ireland, perhaps due to their self professed warm relationship with the country. Before the Canadian ensemble took to the stage however, we were treated to an exceptional set from one of rock's greatest ever four pieces.

Those who may have been wary of a setlist promoting the Pixies most recent and most uninspired release Indie Cindy should have had no fear as the band thrashed out a series of their finest tunes, the majority of them taken from defining releases Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. After kicking off early with classics such as ''Crackity Jones'', ''Mr. Grieves'', ''Hey'' and ''Gouge Away'', it was clear that Frank Black and co. had lost nothing of their live expertise as they flawlessly executed a near perfect set with pitch perfect vocals and immaculate timing from the entire band. Even the absence of Kim Deal was barely noted as replacement bassist Paz Lenchantin replicated her trademark falsetto backup on tracks like ''Wave Of Mutilation'', ''Caribou'' and ''Where Is My Mind?'', with the latter receiving pop of the night for obvious reasons.

Even tracks taken from Cindy seemed to take on a new life when performed, with ''Greens And Blues'' offering the most convincing example of a dull album track being transformed through the band's live energy, but the highlights were always obvious with ''Here Comes Your Man'' and ''Vamos'' among them, but it would be impossible not to mention Dave Lovering's charming performance on ''La La Love You'' as moment of the night, with the drummer executing his sole vocal feature in the band's catalogue with the kind of wit and personality that Frank Black failed to show throughout the evening.

It was Black's notoriously difficult personality that brought the set to an unceremonious end as the band struck up ''Debaser'' only for the frontman to cut it off, claiming his guitar had died and he was ''taking it as a sign''. It was about the most that Black had spoken all night, and his manner on stage in between songs seemed to suggest he was perhaps unimpressed by the Irish crowd, many of whom admittedly didn't seem to realize the quality of what they were witnessing. It seems strangely ironic to think that those who showed up only for Arcade Fire are unaware of the fact that their favourite band wouldn't exist if it weren't for the Pixies in the first place, but Black's sudden departure remains an unprofessional move, and seems pretty ungrateful to the Irish fans who actually showed up to see the band.

All in all though, this was a wonderful return for a band who are still better than most at rocking out on a live stage 23 years after they originally called it quits, it's just a shame it had to end in such a strange manner.


Right on time at half past eight, Win, Regine and the rest of The Arcade Fire took to stage with their now customary bobblehead costumes in the image of U2 as ''Streets Have No Name'' played through the speakers. It was a sweet way to start as the band warmed themselves to the Irish crowd before getting down to business with ''Normal Person'' and ''Joan Of Arc'' taken from Reflektor being mixed with vintage tunes by the band such as ''Rebellion (Lies)'', ''The Suburbs'' and ''Tunnels'', the latter of which even came with a ''Where Is My Mind?'' outro that pleased the crowd, and Win was quick to pay tribute to his heroes, stating: ''Everything that is odd has happened to you when you're playing after the Pixies''.

The band's figurehead has transformed from the reserved figure that slouched around stage during early tours into an assured rock frontman over the past decade and it shows like never before tonight as he professes his love to the Dublin crowd with genuine emotion, a gesture that's highly appreciated by the tens of thousand in attendance, who make their voices heard when the talking stops and the music continues with the likes of ''No Cars Go'', ''Intervention'' (accompanied by an ''Antichrist Television Blues'' snippet) and ''Reflektor'' getting the loudest reception before the gorgeous synth pop of ''Sprawl II'' brings the set to a temporary close.

Chants for more are answered swiftly as Butler emerges from backstage in the form of Pope Francis to the soundtrack of Sinead O Connors ''Nothing Compares 2 U'' in a hilarious segment that sees a picture of Miley Cyrus being ripped on screen to the delight of the crowd. It's yet another moment of synchronicity between the band and their Irish fan base, a relationship which truly does seem engaging and special on several occasions throughout the night.

The band rip through set favourite ''Power Out'' and a couple more Reflektor standouts (''Afterlife'' and ''Here Comes The Nighttime'') before the evening is brought to an epic close with ''Wake Up'' as everyone in Marlay Park echoes the band's glorious chant back to them while confetti rains down on the deafening crowd in a scene of epic proportions and stunning beauty, bringing a perfect evening to a worthy end.

As the band take their bows and exit stage, Win has to tell the crowd one more time: ''We fucking love you!'', and I'll be damned if every single person in Marlay Park wasn't thinking the same thing.