Who is Arcade Fire? (or: Since when did talent merit a Grammy?)

I am interrupting a series of posts I’ve been writing about last week’s Dead White Guys twitter debate because there is only one thing on my mind at the moment. If you’re anything like me, you don’t hold the Grammys in very high regard and haven’t for some time now. More often than not, the awarding of the marquee prizes like Album of the Year have about as much to do with talent and accomplishment as the votes you were forced to cast for your high school’s homecoming court. But if the wave of vitriolic vexation that washed over Twitter in the 24 hours following the awarding of Album of the Year to the Arcade Fire for The Suburbs is any indication, the newest generation of Grammy voters may indeed be experiencing a renewed interest in actual music.

There is, of course, a great deal of basking to be done in the glow of the Arcade Fire (likewise in the award for Best New Artist). We had a baffled MTV trying to rationalise Gaga’s defeat, pinning the blame on the paranoid throngs of conservative musicians frightened by her flamboyant espousal of the ‘queer agenda’. Or the shear joy of watching Esperanza Spalding swiftly dash the dreams of countless beleaguered Beliebers. Then there’s this little gem (whoisarcadefire.tumblr.com), which popped up in the wee hours of Monday morning. But, perhaps more important than the all-too-rare public recognition of a band who spend more time practicing than preening or posturing are the symbolic victories which extend far beyond the band members alone.

Because, if you think about it, it’s a victory for all of us, really—for those of us whose interaction with the world reaches beyond the comings and goings of a Madonna knock-off in a rancid meat dress or a Canadian teenager who really ought to be in school. It’s an important victory for we who still clear space for our turntables and call songs by their track numbers because we still have some concept of continuity: of beginning, middle, and end. And it’s a message to the labels—and one we’ve been trying to send for ages now—that music isn’t (and never should be) about churning out hit after hit, but about nurturing artists and fostering creativity and not as dictated by sales figures and focus groups but by high concept and visceral intuition.

And maybe that’s what we’re seeing here. Maybe the Talent are finally sending a message to the parasites who bleed them dry: that while the hit factory model may make them millions, it will never make them respectable. Will that change the behaviour of the Geffens, Bransons, and Davises of this world? Not likely. But something else we learned last night: no one needs major labels anymore. A lot of talent and even more passion can accomplish everything and more than a bottomless bank account ever could. We can only hope that such high-profile recognition of an independent entity will boost the morale of the innumerable others who choose to go it alone. Could we finally be witnessing ‘the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism‘?

P.S. I would be remiss if I did not also take this opportunity to congratulate my former colleagues from the Chicago Symphony as well as my friends at Naxos of America who absolutely crushed in the classical categories Sunday night.

P.P.S. If you liked this, here is another article from Vancouver about the importance of last night’s award.

Don’t get dramatic, this ain’t the movies

The mark of a great album is that your favorite song will change every week or two.  Real life example: David Bowie’s Hunky Dory.  Can you really pick a favorite?  First it will be “Changes” because even though it’s way overrated and you want to be cool, it will be the first Bowie song you ever hear and will suck you in immediately; then it will be “Life On Mars,” then “Queen Bitch,” then eventually you’ll wrap back around to “Oh! You Pretty Things” until you finish off with “Bewlay Brothers” before you realize that “Bombers” is really freaking awesome…

But I’m not here to talk about Bowie, as much as I love him and his fancy outfits.  I’m here to talk about Dear and the Headlights’ sophomore album, Drunk Like Bible Times, which was released back in September on the indie record label Equal Vision.  Dear and the Headlights are living proof that you don’t have to be “indie” to be indie.  They have no silly instruments, no incredible bios, and no skinny androgynous-looking boys or girls.  They may or may not have written their Wikipedia page themselves, and whether or not anything on the page is true doesn’t really matter because you won’t find any other information about them on their website or their myspace.  Not to mention that their “story” as told by whoever actually did write about them on Wikipedia is maybe the most boring thing I have ever read next to the back of a shampoo bottle.

However, once you’ve listened to this album for about a month, you’ll realize your favorite song has changed at least four or five times because not only is there not a bad song on this album, every track is a gem.  Musically, these guys are fantastic.  The chord progressions are interesting (although unlike Eric, I’ll probably never be able to tell you what they are) and the form changes enough to keep my ADD self from skipping any tracks.  They have good movement over the entire album as well, hooking you with the catchy first track, “I’m Not Crying, You’re Not Crying, Are You?,” leaving you trying to catch up with “Talk About,” and then bringing you back down to peace with “Parallel Lines.”  “I Know” may be the most unexpected track (and the best drinking song), with the drums sounding like a tap dancer and a great little clapping/yelling session at the end.  What really pulls together the band’s raw style, though, is Ian Metzger’s voice.  First he’s singing, then it gets a little too intense and he’s gotta yell for a second, then he’s cool and he’s just gonna sing again.  He’s not Bright Eyes or Bob Dylan, talking through everything, and he’s not freaking Rufus Wainwright, lovely and classically trained.  He’s passionate, vulnerable, and raw, and the rest of the band is right there ready to join him.

While musically, Dear and the Headlights knows what they’re doing and they do it well, they are incredibly lyrically focused.  They are angst without emo and wit without whining, which isn’t surprising; after all, you don’t have to look much further than the name of the band or the name of the album to appreciate their cleverness.  “Talk About” is one huge string of metaphors (“I’m a passed out priest in an AA meeting/and they’re checking my pulse trying to make a decision/I’ve got those rolled back eyes but nothing’s clouding my vision”)-you’ll be speechless by the end of it, after which you will proceed to listen to it as many times as it takes to learn all the words.  The lyrics on “If Not For My Glasses” might err on the side of emo if not for their sheer brilliance (“I love your face, the way it moves, your murky mouth, your eyelid brooms/and I’m feeling that cobweb apprehension…You say I’m your white cast kid, I was born for your cares/ why you gotta label me now?”) but the lack of jadedness on “Parallel Lines” and “Flowers for My Brain” (“We’re swaying in subconscious subways so insane/but your thoughts still bring flowers for my brain/ and I still pull my hands past your ribcage/ hoping my movements might find their place at your side”) proves that they have hope despite their more-than-occasional cynicism.

I could really go on and on about the lyrics on this album, but I’d rather you check them out yourselves.  Any decent cynical idealist will appreciate the wit and the intensity.  And bonus!  You’ll have a new favorite song every week!  As for a sneak preview, you can check out some of their concert videos on myspace, but good luck trying to find any music videos from this album.  My recommendation: grab some beer and some friends and get Drunk Like Bible Times!  (But please drink responsibly.  This is a message from The Indie Handbook.)