Music

Counterbalance No. 34: The Arcade Fire’s 'Funeral'

Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger got into a fight so that the neighbors could dance in the police disco lights. But since disco is passé, no one showed up. This week in Counterbalance, the Arcade Fire's Funeral.

Mendelsohn: This is a special album, Klinger. Special. It's in the top 50 on the Great List and it was released within the last ten years. Considering that most of the albums we've talked about thus far are pushing middle age, what kind of album could catapult an untested band of nobodies from Canada into the holy rock and roll canon? I'll tell you what kind—the special kind.

Klinger: Is it? Is it special? I’ve been kind of back and forth on this album ever since I first heard a track from it and decided it not only sounded like the Pixies, as was the style at the time, but I decided it specifically sounded like “Velouria” (as I listen to the album now, though, I have no idea which song that could have been). So grumpy old me put the record aside, assuming it was something I needn’t concern myself with.

Meanwhile, though, while I was doing other things, the Arcade Fire continued to grow slowly in stature, even as a lot of other bands from that more innocent time fell by the wayside. And along with that, apparently, the respect for Funeral has far outstripped my shortsighted 2004 expectations. Outstripped them embarrassingly, in fact. But you used the word “canon” up there, Mendelsohn, and even though this album is irrefutably ranked in the upper-upper reaches of the Great List, I’m still reluctant to call it canonical.

Mendelsohn: It’s special because apparently everyone with an Internets connection loved it. Which is weird, because people on the Internets normally just hate things and then call it a day. But I digress. I think the song you were thinking about is "Rebellion (Lies)", which does sound vaguely Pixie-ish, but then again, most bands post-1991 sound vaguely Pixie-ish. Personally, I think the Arcade Fire sounds mostly like David Bowie -- all of David Bowie. Take Bowie's entire catalog, compress it down to under an hour and you might get something like Funeral, but with less shouting.


Anyway, when you get right down to it, isn't the Great List and the Canon the same thing? Sure, the "canon" conjures images of classic tomes, and stuffy libraries and an impenetrable citadel guarded by the Criticerati, but why are we trying so hard to make something ephemeral into something empirical? It's all conjecture -- a list based on the lists made by people who's only real basis for such a list was their own opinion. That's the sum of the Great List. The canon is the same, but it just gets to wear a more expensive hat. None of it is based on any real science -- except for Henrik Franzon's algorithm. The rest of it is based on fake science, like global warming and evolution and gravity. The only thing we can really say is Arcade Fire's Funeral was loved so much and so hard over the past seven years that it has managed to beat out the likes of U2, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, and a host of other classic, canonical artists we haven't even had a chance to talk about yet.

Klinger: The Great List is indeed lovingly compiled with mathematical precision, and it codifies the vagaries of human opinion. And in creating this list, I’d say that a list of albums is emerging that starts to tell the story of post-WWII popular music. If a 12-year-old kid wanted to get started in the world of rock nerdery (a noble pursuit if ever there was one), these first hundred albums would be an ideal starting point.

So it would be understood that a person trying to make sense of pop music should be conversant in these albums, keeping in mind that whole segments of music are being represented by stand-ins (Appetite for Destruction, Dark Side of the Moon, Kind of Blue). For the time being, post-Radiohead indie-style rock appears to be represented by Funeral. You’re far more plugged into this stuff than I am, Mendelsohn. Is this a wise choice?

Mendelsohn: Sure. Were there “indie” albums that I liked better than Funeral? Absolutely. But none of these albums were strictly “indie” for various reasons -- too much country, too signed to a major label, too classic rock, too avant-garde, too signed to another major label, too much folk influence, too much like Radiohead to be post-Radiohead, too straightforward rock and so on and so forth. Without having to actually define “indie”, because defining it is a quagmire onto itself, let's just say none of the bands listed above fit nicely into the slot.

Arcade Fire, on the other hand, had indie written all over it. They were from Canada, they have eight or 12 or 16 band members some of whom play string instruments (with bows!), they have two drummers, they all live in a church or some such nonsense and they were signed to Merge Records, a bastion of indie music. On top of that they put out a record that wasn't just all jangly guitar rock. Funeral was expansive, with classical underpinnings and an overwrought sense of operatic majesty and angst based on the claustrophobic pressures of the suburbs. Basically, it took all the right cues from indie rock (i.e., aped the Pixies) and tossed in something new, something the indie rock scene didn't have much of -- grandiosity in music, not just in image. You might want to look at it this way: Funeral is the millennial generation's Born to Run.

Klinger: That’s very helpful for us premillennial types. I think it’s that unalloyed epic sweep of Funeral that resonated so much with people who’d had their fill of ironic detachment. The New Pornographers might have been able to put together songs as big as the “Neighborhood” suite of songs, but they’d sound like they were kidding.


I’m also hearing a massive early ’80s influence in this disc, something that I think ties in with your earlier Bowie comment, and for some reason that comes through most clearly in “Crown of Love”, especially as it makes that dramatic segue into the quite nearly discofied outro (and then that song’s shift into the Big Music sound of “Wake Up” -- which then hits that bit that sounds like General Public!).

But I think the fact that the Arcade Fire’s influences are hard to immediately pin down is part of their appeal. Funeral pivots around enough and employs enough interesting textures to make people feel like they’re doing something daring while not challenging them too much. That might sound like more of a dig than I mean it to, but there you have it.

Mendelsohn: No, you're right. Arcade Fire, intentionally or not, have managed to mask Funeral's sonic origins, which has more to do with the wide ranging influences that keep popping up every other minute than anything else. It's hard to put your finger on an aural visage that won't stop shifting. But that brings me to the reason why I ultimately think Arcade Fire are deserving of a spot in the canon and on the Great List. It was their ability to synthesize the past 50 years of music into a coherent whole and then distill it down into chunk of easily digestible material. We've talked at length about the Beatles' ability to codify what they were hearing around them and then turn it out in their records, or the Rolling Stones loving recreation of American blues, or even Bob Dylan's adjustments to the folk model; the Arcade Fire has done the same except they took a half century of musical styles--not just rock or blues or folk, but everything that came filtered through their predecessors -- and created Funeral.

The Arcade Fire were in a unique position to make this album. They had the benefit of decades of material to reference and in Funeral they pushed their way to the head of the pack at a time when indie rock was morphing from the cool music that only college kids cared about to the cool music that everybody cared about. I don't want to say they got lucky, but... right place, right time?

Klinger: Quite possibly, but your analogy is a double-edged sword. It’s kind of like when you mix up all the paints into one and get brown, or when you out some of every soda in your cup when you were a kid. As we write this, I’m having a hard time keeping the songs straight in my head or remembering specific melodies -- and I’ve been listening to this repeatedly over the past few weeks. It’s all blending into a beige-ish swirl for me. This may explain why, as much as I admire Arcade Fire and am pleased for their recent success, I’m reluctant to say that I’m actually excited by Funeral, and I’m still unconvinced that they will remain Canonical in years to come. I guess in some ways I’m still that skeptical old cuss from the halcyon days of 2004.

Mendelsohn: That's a bit over simplisitic. I think Arcade Fire is much more nuanced then you give them credit for. This is the first album on the list that is several generations removed from the advent of rock and roll. The cultural touchstones that the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or Dylan used to shape their music are beyond the reach of the Arcade Fire. The reference points they have to use are the bands that used the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Dylan as touchstones. Funeral is layer upon layer upon layer of musical reference. As a whole, it may sound beige, but if you get up close what you would see would be more Jackson Pollock than beige swirl.

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I'd be willing to bet a dollar this album will still be hanging around the top of the list twenty years from now.

Klinger: You’re on. If I win, leave your dollar with the receptionist at the old folks’ home.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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