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The Arcade Fire

The Right Balance

It's a fine line that exists in music these days between the emotional and the, gulp, pretentious. Add too much feeling to a composition and it seems somehow contrived or impure. Add too little and you're Ashlee Simpson just going through the motions. The Arcade Fire is that rare band which manages to find just the right balance, pouring its soul into its work while somehow keeping two feet planted firmly in meaningful.

Take "Wake Up", the spiritual climax of The Arcade Fire's debut release Funeral, featuring 15 musicians singing key parts together, big loud guitar and string arrangements written wholly for the purpose of catharsis, and lyrics riding the spectrum from bleak to hopeful, ending with "You better look out below!". At times the sound is reminiscent of The Polyphonic Spree, though a key difference lies in the delivery. Arcade Fire lead singer Win Butler sounds genuine without dripping in self-importance like Spree frontman Tim Delaughter, who gets too easily caught up in his Jesus complex.

The Spree comparison stops right there, as the majority of the band's music -- while always cinematic in subject and sound -- aches wistfully and, often, painfully. The word emotional has gotten a bad rap with all the tearful emo bands out there singing oft-whiny ballads, but The Arcade Fire cries out from within sans tear ducts. It's a not-so-subtle difference and places them closer to bands like Interpol, Sigur Ros or even Queen in the rock canon.

You need look no further than the album title and liner notes to get a sense for the band's (not-so) secret. Since its formation a little more than a year ago in Montreal, the five original members have experienced a wealth of raw emotion to draw upon in the studio and on stage. Butler (whose brother William is also in the band) lost a grandfather, female vocalist Regine Chassagne lost her grandmother, and organist Richard Parry's aunt passed away as well. Amidst all this, there was also a major celebration: the marriage of Butler and Chassagne, who met four years earlier while Butler was searching for musicians for his new project.

All this exposure to the life cycle had a profound influence on the band's formative sessions together and, eventually, on the album. Two important themes of the coping process play prominent roles on Funeral, sadness and mournful lamentation being one, carpe diem being the other. At times, the world and characters created on the album are pretty darn desolate, but love of course ends up winning out in the end. It is, after all, music so hook-driven it lands squarely in the realm of pop. Well, pop with a flourish.

The band's unique and quirky sound has been incredibly well received in indie circles and beyond, and The Arcade Fire has quickly developed into one of the biggest stories of 2004. After its release on Merge Records in September, Funeral received a phenomenal 9.7 rating on Pitchfork and has been mentioned often in mainstream press like Rolling Stone. As December rolls around, you can expect to see it on many critics' Top-10 lists. Though their first San Francisco appearance at Bottom of the Hill is already sold out, if you can find yourself a ticket The Arcade Fire's live act supposedly lives up to the promise they deliver on the album. With a flourish, of course.

Bottom of the Hill
Wed, December 8
9 : 00 pm
Tickets are Sold Out