The Three Albums to Watch
Few interesting new releases came across my desk this week, so instead of the conventional weekly reviews, today's column presents a speculative preview of the three most exciting LPs currently in development: the next from post-rockers Sigur Ròs, new-alternative rockers Radiohead, and the unknown Arcade Fire. This trio of bands are preparing to release discs within the next year, and each of them is capable of preparing jaw-dropping, show-stopping work. Let the buzz begin.
Though Sigur Ròs have been intermittently playing shows since the North American release of the fabulous Ágætis Byrjun (tangmonkey.com review here), they have also been spending time in their Iceland studio, slowly preparing a follow-up to Ágætis Byrjun - which was originally released in '99. Producer Ken Thomas (Wire, Sugarcubes) returns, and with it he brings a partial guarantee that this next album's sound won't fall too deeply into prog-rock cheese - a pratfall that Ágætis Byrjun narrowly missed. Sigur Ròs intends to complete recording by the late July, 2002.
This next disc will likely have eight or nine songs, and already several of the tracks are more than ten minutes. It's not unlikely that the LP will be at least seventy minutes long. A rerecorded, studio version of "Njosnavelin", released in previous form on the Vanilla Sky soundtrack, will be included on the album. When quizzed about style, the group has suggested that the new disc will have a more "raw" style, allowing for greater success in live interpretations. Though this doesn't mean Sigur Ròs is going the way of the Hives, this implies fewer bombastic horn fanfares, and more haunting dirges. The band has said in interview that we can expect the songs to be "darker".
2003 can't come soon enough. I'm dying to hear this disc. The band has had three or four years since Ágætis Byrjun, and given that they are so young, this time has likely brought them all sorts of musical development and maturity. Although I'm not particularly interested in a heavily stripped-down, "Sigur Ròs does Dirty 3" album, I imagine that the group's propensity for hyperbole is at work here, and though perhaps we'll see fewer orchestral flourishes, the depth, scope and instrumental breadth of Sigur Ròs' work will likely remain pretty high-level. Hopefully the band's critical success won't cause intersocial or creative turmoil - here's hoping that Sigur Ròs, for one, won't disappoint.
Since the beginning of April, Radiohead has been in studio working on an as-yet-untitled follow-up to the one-two punch of Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001) (tangmonkey.com review here). Their intention is to develop their new songs to a certain point, and then bring them into a live environment on tour in Europe this summer. OK Computer followed this process, to great success. Rumours have been circulating about 'album six' being a "return to guitars", but band-members have been ambiguous. As they have only just started recording, they assert that they have no idea how things will turn out. Ed O'Brien admits, however, that he is a great fan of the new "new wave" of rock - the Strokes, the White Stripes, Electric Soft Parade, etc. - and Thom Yorke has spent the last few years listening to Tim Buckley as much as he has Boards of Canada.
These new sessions are being engineered by Graeme Stewart, who helped on Amnesiac and Kid A, although it's likely that Nigel Godrich will be pulled in at some point later in the process. While waiting for the album to be released - likely in the first part of 2003 - fans may be sated by the release of a b-sides compilation.
I think Radiohead has it in them to make the best album of their career. Numerous critics and artists affirmed the creative choices made by the band on their last two albums, which will have given them faith in their more avant-garde leanings. Criticism with regard to both albums' sprawling, inconsistent quality will be factored into the next release: I anticipate a tight, coherent disc, with the excesses stripped away. This is a good thing.
I think Kid A is Radiohead's finest album to date, and as such, I shudder at the thought of a "return" to their guitar-rock days. Though songs like "High and Dry" and "Street Spirit" are among the best of the genre, I feel they fall short of the creative peaks afforded by "Everything in Its Right Place", "Pyramid Song" and "Idioteque". These tracks aren't un-rock, but they're a far cry from anthemic rockers. Several fine bands have taken up Radiohead's mope-rock torch (Coldplay, etc.), which leaves the boys from Oxford to continue to blaze new trails. I think it's extremely unlikely that Radiohead will actually record a Strokes-esque LP, but there is the chance that they'll flow in the direction of the more conventional "Knives Out", "I Might Be Wrong" and "Optimistic". I, for one, would be extremely disappointed.
The Arcade Fire
The Goods and the Opinion:
In a city that lauds prodigal sons Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Daniel Belanger and A Silver Mt. Zion, it may come as a surprise that Montreal's best band is an unsigned, all-but-unrecorded five-piece called The Arcade Fire.
Now when I say 'best band', I mean it. The Arcade Fire is to die for. There's no pretentious tomfoolery, no ride-on-your-laurels sing-alongs: what The Arcade Fire does, night after night, is perform some of the most well-written, inventive, evocative songs this side of Neutral Milk Hotel. Lead singer and principal songwriter Win Butler is relentless in his pursuit of new, potent imagery, wrenching atmosphere and cohesive melodic genius. The core guitar/bass/Rhodes/drums/drums lineup is constantly shifting - members play everything from accordion to xylophone to electrosynths, with occasional guest performances on clarinet, trumpet, oboe and harp. Though Win's southern twang is initially jarring, it soon becomes an affecting aspect of his sad, whinsome delivery. He frequently duets with Rajean on organ/piano/accordion, and their voices blend in an astonishingly lovely way. The group's alt.alt.folk is on the one hand simple - ballads and rockers with verses and choruses - but on the other hand, entirely challenging. Songs will frequently switch gears from crooning to cataclysmic, from full-bodied to minimalist and sparse. On numbers such as "Vampire Forest Fire" and "Milk and Honey", musical themes unfold alongside lyrical ones reaching a penultimate, heart-searing crescendo of sound and meaning, followed only with the lonely, glittering fragments. As I listen to The Arcade Fire, their music touches on the sublime: that approach of terror, of true awe, when the music seems enough to overtake you. One of the central elements of the group's success is the dual-percussion assault of Brendan Reed and Dane Mills. Win's sad, singer-songwriter work gains a sonic electricity, a pulsing heartbeat, through the drummers' artful, rhythmically diverse playing. They play quiet as well as they do loud, demonstrating equal verve on a country shuffle as they do in other songs' orchestral, apocalyptic finales.
For three months this summer, The Arcade Fire will be convening in Maine in order to record an album. Presumably, we can expect it to be completed by the autumn or early winter of 2002. Recent favourites such as the lilting "Vampire Forest Fire" and unlike-anything-you've-heard "My Heart is an Apple" are likely to feature on the disc, as is the contagious, 'New Wave' crowd favourite, "Headlights". (That is, if the tune hasn't already become the band's "Creep" - fan-loved, band-loathed and ultimately excised from setlists...) For my part, I would love to see the chandelier-crashing "Accidents", as well as the band's sublime cover of Geoff Muldaur's summertime hooray "Brazil". (If you haven't heard the original, do yourself a favour and do so right now.) When it comes down to if, however, I have tremendous faith in the band's artistic instincts and songwriting/instrumental/engineering skill. If The Arcade Fire's LP approaches anywhere near the hallelujah of their live performances, it will be the album of the year. You'll be the first to know.