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Archive for August, 2010

Although I don’t listen to it much, I’ve always had an affinity for ambient music. The music’s tranquility and patience is accessible to a lot of different moods, as well as activities. I can write, work, do yoga, or fall asleep to ambient music, without the guilt of having used it as background music. In 1978, ambient pioneer Brian Eno released an album titled Music For Airports. Eno believed that airports are physically¬† (and conceptually) beautiful things and he wanted to create an album that would soundtrack the experience much better than the “awful” pop music he was used to hearing. Upon releasing this album, Eno established ambient as a legitimate genre, and also made the point that background music doesn’t have to be throwaway muzac.

Many artists have followed in Eno’s footstep’s in the last 30 years or so; some wholeheartedly, and others who have incorporated elements of the ambient style. One artist though, who doesn’t fall into any of those categories, has recently been remixed to sound like seasoned ambient veteran. A few weeks ago, Pop music savior Justin Beiber’s latest single “U Smile”¬† was remixed by this dude named Nick Pittsinger.

The track was slowed down by 800 percent, and now lasts about 35 minutes. Waves of synthy strings and relentlessly slow chord changes create an ambient, aquatic feeling somewhat akin to the drama and patience of early Sigur Ros. Beiber’s high pitched screech is still audible, but now, at this speed, his long phrases swim around in this ambient ocean like a whale’s mating call. The song (piece?) never really builds, and takes up a lot of listening time, but it works as a soother, and would definitely sound good in an airport. Unfortunately the original probably takes those honors. Listen to Eno.

“U Smile” Remix

Music for Airports – Brian Eno

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Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

Throughout the last half decade (or so), Arcade Fire has made a name for itself by crafting lush, dramatic pop songs that make statements that are, well, dramatic. Win Butler’s lyrics can obsess over detail or confound with bewildering metaphor, but we can always choose to focus on the vast arrangements. This was certainly true on the band’s debut Funeral, and to a lesser extent on 2007’s Neon Bible. The latter’s sonic busyness at times clouded the message, which I think had to do with politics and religion and maybe some cultural desperation. With their third album The Suburbs, Arcade Fire has matured. By reigning in some of those ambitious arrangements and writing lyrics that champion the honest simplicity of straight forward rock, they have made a patient and personal album that hits earlier and deeper than anything they’ve done yet.

Through the first listen, you realize that The Suburbs retains that Arcade Fire beauty– the big drums, varied instrumentation, and singalong choruses are all still present– only with more immediacy. Since their immensely popular debut, this stylistic beauty has rarely been surpassed by any of their mega-indie contemporaries. Arcade Fire sounds like Arcade Fire, and The Suburbs continues this musical trajectory. They do, however, have their influences, and on this album we hear everything from the electronic pulse of Depeche Mode (“Half Light II”), to the bare bones ruggedness of The Clash circa 1977 (“Ready To Start”, “Month of May.”)

The buoyant and bouncy title track was a good choice for an opener (and first single), mainly because its nostalgic imagery initiates the thematic basis of the album. We, as listeners, are made a bit uneasy by the subtly hesitant piano, as well as Butler’s loose melody. Lyrically, it’s sentimental; Butler takes us back to where he grew up (the suburbs, duh), and tells us how he’s grown out of the childishness of loving his birthplace and into that transitory state of unexplained apathy, where he’s not sure what to love. The Suburbs is full of questions and thought provocations like this, and although they’re no Pink Floyd, Arcade Fire certainly knows how to weave concepts through their albums.

At 16 tracks and just over an hour, The Suburbs is a lengthy endeavor. Once you’re done both of the “Half Light(s),” you’ve probably caught onto the simple subject matter with relative ease. But the album doesn’t bore, and in an almost pedantic fashion, the last eight tunes hammer home the basics with much more gusto and variation than the first eight. In the self-explanatory “Suburban War,” Butler croons about opposing tribes of kids and how music can define and–especially when you’re young– alienate you. The song’s graceful beat and bright 12-string twang suggests that it isn’t as much about regret as it about reflection, which is what most of the album suggests anyway.

The personal lyrical direction taken by Butler is still vague enough on a few tracks to carry some bigger metaphors. “Deep Blue” does the technology complaint sparingly enough to satisfy, and passively enough not to annoy. But, “We Used to Wait” is so forthright in its diatribe against the quest for immediacy and convenience, that you almost feel guilty for having a cell phone, or, dare I say, buying The Suburbs on iTunes. This pastoral complaint isn’t the only one, but its certainly the most whiny (“Now our lives are changing fast/Hope that something pure can last.”)

The drama and loftiness that Arcade Fire is so well known for exists wholeheartedly on The Suburbs. Their dark and ominous themes, however, have lessened. By the group’s standards, The Suburbs‘ realistic reflection on the toils of suburbia and the indelible mark it leaves on its inhabitants, past or present, is almost hopeful. Arcade Fire –Butler, especially– have grounded themselves, and evolved to make a thoughtful album that sends a terse, but meaningful message, a target they’ve kind of been shooting for since the beginning.

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