Monday, October 8, 2007

Arcade Fire/LCD Soundsystem/Blonde Redhead Concert

On Saturday night, I walked onto the field of Randall's Island as the delay-laden voice of Kazu Makino (from Blonde Redhead) echoed over a washy drone that complemented the evening's humidity.

Unfortunately, my party arrived late for the concert and we were only able to catch the end of Blonde Redhead’s set. But from what I could tell, the material from “23” is much better live. While I am a huge fan of the shoegazing bands from the early 90’s (Slowdive, Chapterhouse, My Bloody Valentine,) I can also appreciate the general criticism of “23” that it is a somewhat pedestrian take on the genre. However, when the music was complemented by subtle stage lighting and an outdoor venue at dusk, the result was dreamy and alluring.

photo courtesy of babbu

Next up were James Murphy and his studio project, LCD Soundsystem.

Now, I really didn’t want to like this band. Murphy’s label, DFA, was part of the early 2000s co-option and branding of the Lower East Side (and Williamsburg) as a playground for denim-clad, skinny disco/punks looking for a fashion orgy. And the press enjoyed portraying this “scene” as the legacy of the late 1970’s, CBGBs-era New York City. In reality, artists like The Rapture, The Strokes and Ryan McGinley were and (continue to be) simply interested in capturing a style, whereas their elder counterparts like Talking Heads, The Ramones and Nan Goldin were committed to the more valuable pursuit of innovation through style.

That being said, the new LCD Soundsystem record, “Sound of Silver,” was my guilty pleasure of the summer. The deliberate stylistic attention (ESG, Sugarhill Records, Gang of Four) was still there, but it was softened by a genuineness in the vocals and lyrics that added a layer of sincerity. This makes sense since Murphy (37) is just old enough (as he has said in interviews) to have heard a lot of the bands that influence his sound when they were performing in their heyday. Still, I was a bit suspicious of seeing LCD Soundsystem live, since I find embracing "retro" a generally adolescent pursuit.

In concert, this odd mix of intention was amplified and it actually had a wonderful effect. Murphy’s band sounded TIGHT and all the members were clearly schooled in the nuances of early 80’s hip-hop, funk and no wave . So when the disco ball lit up during a propulsive high in the second song,

there was a palatable connection between the stomping crowd and equally stomping band.

Then there’s Murphy’s voice. It is a mid to high pitched yelp that does not have a lot of natural strength (as opposed to unfairly say, Aretha,) but still manages to attain a power by his sheer will. This determination, coupled with Murphy's self-deprecating and humble stage presence, completely won the crowd over. And his stage banter was constantly hilarious. At one point, Murphy interrupted the piano ballad “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” to say, “Hey guys, do you know Tony? He’s sitting in on this song and plays guitar for Arcade Fire. How cool is that?” Then he went right back to singing, without missing the beat (barely.)

LCD Soundsystem set the bar high for the headlining Arcade Fire, who began their set with a montage of evangelical Christian videos. This was a clever allusion to their current album, “Neon Bible.” The band then ran onstage in the shadows of red neon and flashing tv screens. It was a scene that could have been taken out of Blade Runner or a 1980's Prince concert.

photo courtesy of Pablog

I literally couldn't talk for about 2 minutes because it was absolutely stunning to watch. But once I adjusted to the spectacle and started to really listen to the music, a disconnect occured to me. What I was hearing and watching did not fit. The presentation was Andrew Lloyd Webber (as my friend Tavia said,) but the music was quirky and self-consciously heartfelt, with the emotion of each song shifting monotonously from confessional to declaratively heavy-handed. There was no extravagance or even pop bombast. To match the awe of the stage set, the band should have initially knocked out high energy material like "No Cars Go" or "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)." Instead, they opted for a slow burn, which started with the first two tracks from "Neon Bible"(neither of which I like) and continued in a similar, mid-tempo dirge until the show was almost over. At that point, the band finally played two of their largest, lightest tunes: "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" and "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)." But it was too late to get excited.

I enjoy the collision of new wave and old-timey instrumentation that is found in many of Arcade Fire's songs. Unfortunately (like many indie bands at the moment,) they are lately more interested in channeling Bruce Springsteen with an overbearing sense of melodrama. More than half of their set borrowed liberally from the rhythmic feel and melodic phrasing of "I'm on Fire" and "Born to Run." Lead singer Win Butler seemed to be trying on the hats of both a young Bruce and "Joshua Tree"-era Bono, strumming his acoustic guitar and preaching to his rapt audience from a cyber-punk electric church.

But Butler had neither Bono's combination of ego, piety and charisma nor Bruce's everyman persona. Instead, he came off as humorless and pretentious. I think Butler and Arcade Fire took the "Neon Bible" concept too literally and attempted to create an indie-rock revival meeting with Butler serving as the minister. If you're going for the Christ as Rock Star concept, you better have your lyrics profound and your music sublime. Arcade Fire have neither and my interest in them is not for worship. They are simply a very good, perhaps excellent, rock band; and one that has some genuinely novel concepts. I might have enjoyed the brooding simmer of their set list choice had their stage show been toned down in scale. Conversely, I might have bought the indie via broadway aesthetic if they had come out swinging with three or four upbeat and familiar songs at the beginning, instead of at the end.

Conceptual flaws made Arcade Fire neither breathtaking nor emotionally engaging. The showstopper had already played before them.

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