Music Review – epic albums from Arcade Fire and Jonathan Wilson

Two epic records this week - both double albums in the old fashioned terminology.

Arcade Fire are probably my favourite band of the last ten years. Their debut, Funeral, is perhaps one of the 5 best debuts ever, followed up by two more very strong albums.  But now they’ve hit us with  Reflektor, a 75 minute opus which suggests they have abandoned rock and roll for dance and disco.

And there's a very different feel to this, compared to their previous works, although the vocals, obtuse lyrics and other touches remain identifiably Arcade Fire.  But we have disco sheen added by LCS Soundsystem producer James Murphy, and bass lines / riffs that bring to mind Michael Jackson, Giorgio Moroder, Talking Heads and Blondie amongst others.

But there is still the manic, dangerous quality of their best work - the sense that you don't quite know what will happen next. Here Comes the Night Time, my favourite track, has this suppressed tension under a catchy tune, steel drum riffs and hypnotic rhythm track, a tension that eventually bursts out – the moment the Carnival goes crazy. This song is going to be epic live (see the video below) – and that is a theme here. I suspect a number of these tunes will work better live, bulking out their set with songs that are going to really get a crowd going and make them into credible stadium performers – which they haven’t quite been up to know.

Some songs aren’t really quite up to their standard however – Joan of Arc is a disco-glam stomper that lacks a tune, Porno is dull, and Here Comes the Night Time Part II doesn’t add much to part 1. It would have been a  brilliant single album, but you have to respect them for trying to do something a bit different - and indeed offering great value for money with this much music! It’s also brave calling a track “Awful Sound” – it isn’t, it is one of the most tuneful numbers here, by the way. It’s Never Over is another favourite for me – Giorgio Moroder meets Bombay Bicycle Club? And Supersymentry is a lovely, reflective final track that builds... and then dissolves into 5 minutes of what sounds like a tape being rewound. A typically peculiar and perplexing ending for a band we’re lucky to have around in an increasingly homogenised musical world.

So, a magnificent if flawed work. It’s going to take some time for history to decide just how good it is, so hard to mark, but let’s say an 8.5/10.

The other epic this week is very different in terms of sound, but shares with Arcade Fire not just its length but also its magpie influences. Jonathan Wilson is a 39 year old American songwriter, producer and musician, but Fanfare is only his second solo album. Best described as California folk / rock / psychedelia, it features guest spots from Graham Nash, David Crosby, Jackson Browne and Roy Harper, which is a pretty good indication of what you’ll hear through its 78 minutes – with the largely US influences tempered by a touch of early Pink Floyd or Genesis UK “prog” perhaps? (My wife spotted that side to it).

The song writing is impressive and pretty consistent throughout, although almost inevitably in song that average 6 minutes there is a touch of self-indulgence at times. "Dear Friend" gets into some fairly aimless guitar noodlings in the middle section - but is redeemed by a lovely tuneful opening and ending. But in other tracks, the ability to stretch out works brilliantly, like Moses Pain, which starts in an early Eagles mode, picks up a gorgeous Jackson Browne-type piano, then eventually moves into a Bob Seger gentle Hammond organ driven rock vibe – building for its whole 6 minutes. (The video below is obviously a live version, good, but the recorded is even better).

All in all, a very pleasant surprise. Great sound quality and effects too  – you can tell he’ s been a producer for years. “Fanfare was recorded to 2” analog tape and then mixed down to ½ inch tape at Jackson’s Browne’s Groove Masters studio in Santa Monica through a Neve 8078 analog console”, whatever that means. But it sounds brilliant through headphones or a decent hifi!

 It’s not quite going to be my album of the year, but I don’t think there will be many I actually listen to more than this one, for sheer uncomplicated enjoyment. So  8.5/10 as well.

First Voice

  1. Duncan Dallas:

    I’ve had a few listens to Jonathan Wilson’s album and agree with your summary. My girlfriend’s only comment was “sounds like Pink Floyd” so perhaps prog is something easily picked up by the female ear. If you like this album I can’t recommend enough ‘Fear Fun’ by Father John Misty (drummer from Fleet Foxes). I think the story goes that he wanted to write a novel so set off in a camper van down the west coast of America with a bag of mushrooms and wrote an album instead, which Wilson then produced. It’s more musically straight forward than Wilson’s stuff but in the same vein. “Now I’m learning to love the war” has fantastic lyrics.

    I need to take some time to investigate Arcade Fire. It seems everyone I know was at their recent gigs. I saw them at T in the Park 6 or 7 years ago and didn’t think much but then festivals aren’t the best setting to judge whether you like a band or not.

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