Friday, December 02, 2005

Arcade Fire, Funeral: "Coolness"

Seeing as I am at the midpoint of my life's journey, I know better than to declare to my reader(s) that I am "cool" or that I have "cool" tastes. Indeed, so as to spare my reader(s) (and myself) the pain of reading/recounting scenes from my adolescence, just take it as empirically true that I was not by any stretch anyone's idea of a Cool Kid. I will say, though, that as someone who grew up thinking Electric Light Orchestra was cool, I like to think my tastes have improved somewhat as I have gotten older.

One last thing--actually, two last things--about "coolness," this derived from my reading and thinking about that very topic as it's being discussed on this and the following pages over at the House of Leaves website: 1) That which is "cool" must be known to a relatively small number of people who, once the thing/person becomes more widely known, then get to lament, "I knew it/them when" (because, see, a major-label/publishing-house contract is not seen by such an audience as a vindication of their assessment of coolness (never mind their being happy for the success achieved by the object of their assessment) but as a sign of said object's having "gone commercial"/"sold out") ; 2) "coolness" seems to reside, more often than not, in the audience for the thing/person, and not in what the thing/person is or is doing. It is the scene, the milieu, that becomes the object of admiration, and not the art that ostensibly is its raison d'etre. Indeed, the unpleasant aura of some milieus have the effect of keeping me far, far away from the music of that scene. Perhaps that is the idea. But whatever else it might be, the extent to which it keeps to its own kind would seem a poor criterion for measuring art's successfulness as art.

It's not hard, then, to find "cooless" suspect: maybe certain bands or writers, let's say, are unknown to all but a few initiates for a reason--they SUCK! And if your tastes in music run toward such bands/writers that suck, well, then, why should I buy into your anti-hype of "Nobody's heard of 'em!!"? But then again, I'm not cool, 'cause I'm, like, old, even if I do have a blog, so what do I know?

So: given that Funeral was released over a year ago, and that I had first heard about Arcade Fire back in the spring of this year, and that, even though I've owned Funeral for a couple of months now but I'm only now getting around to blogging about it and them, and given that I am, a priori, not cool, you are excused should you take the the following statement with a grain or two of salt: Arcade Fire are cool.

For those even less cool than I who have not heard this band, I've been trying for a while now to figure out just who Arcade Fire sound like. Lead vocalist Win Butler's singing is strongly reminiscent of David Byrne's, and "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)" even sounds, lyrically, a little like it could have been an early Talking Heads song, but it ain't Talking Heads music they're making in the end. The first time I heard "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)," the music--especially its urgent performance--reminded me a little of U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)", but none of the other songs have that feel. Another poor place to begin as a point of comparison, I'm afraid (and this is the fault of Arcade Fire's string arrangement on "Crown of Love"), is to ask you to imagine a much, much more musically-engaging ELO.

It was while listening to "Haiti," as I noted a couple of posts ago, that the phrase "art-garage" popped into my head. As I listened to the album while driving to Mobile and back last week, the phrase seemed more and more appropriate: Arcade Fire's music has the sort of adolescent urgency and earnestness that is, is it not, the essence of rock & roll--not to mention, even in a dark song like "Haiti," the possibility that something better is out there just beyond the sadness the song is navigating. That's the garage part. The art part appears in little moments like the instrument break in "Haiti" in which the steel drum-sounding keyboards that, you suddenly realize, you've been hearing underneath Regine Chassagne's singing for the past verse, rhythmically play just a single note, while in the background other keyboards and percussion repeat short musical phrases for the better part of a minute, creating a lovely, melodic musique concrete. It's not a "cool" edit, a producer's fiddling with dubbing; it grows out of the song, just like the flowers growing out of the unmarked graves that Chassagne sings about.

And therein lies Arcade Fire's power: it is certainly skilfully-made music by intelligent, self-aware musicians and songwriters, but to my ears it avoids SOUNDING self-aware. Nothing feels added on for the sake of cleverness; the songs are larger than their component parts. These songs sound "found," not contrived or directed to a niche audience. Further: though they don't quite sound like anyone else, Arcade Fire do not sound "weird." It is as though they have found a beautiful, grand musical language that others have passed over that is, nevertheless, immediately accessible.

And in this age of postmodernity's sense that It's All Been Done, of Art as Compost, how "cool" is THAT?

The still-curious are directed to this interview with Win Butler in Pitchfork. The subject of coolness comes up there, too.

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