Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Schultz' Earful

By: David Schultz

NOW THAT THE STROKES are back, we can reflect upon recent period from the past when every band that seemed to have a bright future in front of them was deemed “The New Strokes.” Given how prevalently the term was bandied about, it’s a shame that The Strokes became a casualty of their own overexposure, imploding under the weight of inflated expectations. Ironically, with their resurrection in the fledgling stages, The Strokes would probably be happy right about now if they could self-fulfill the prophecy and become “The New Strokes.” If that did come to pass, such a term would be anachronistic and passé. We’ve moved on since those days. Now, every band that emerges from nowhere with a cult-like following borne from the approval of the current critical tastemakers is billed as the “New Arcade Fire.” If you are reading this, I suspect I haven’t told you anything you didn’t already know.

Still critical darlings, Arcade Fire have returned to the center of the cultural consciousness with The Suburbs, their sterling new studio album. The perfect storm of despair, inspiration and anonymity that resulted in Funeral, the debut disc that launched them (and Pitchfork) into the upper stratospheres of relevance, will unlikely ever happen again. Fortunately, the philosophical shift shown on Neon Bible wasn’t a temporary digression; Win Butler, Regine Chassagne and the rest seem uninterested in reimagining and recreating past glories. They may be keeping an eye cocked backwards - the title track cribs the melody from Funeral’s “In The Bedroom,” Win Butler appropriates Gordon Gano’s wry cadence on “Month Of May” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” updates Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass” – but they are honing and refining the majestic scope of their music, much in the same way U2’s adeptly eased up on the throttle of grandiloquence over the past decade.

On the heels of The Suburbs’ release, Arcade Fire took over Madison Square Garden for a pair of shows that became the de rigueur destination for anyone with a real or feigned interest in meaningful modern music. Despite being outed as robots by Terry Gilliam, Arcade Fire showed that they are rock stars in the same sense that we originally considered Bono a rock star: there is an uncontrived exuberance and earnestness that contagiously enlivens any size crowd. The only difference between the band that introduced Neon Bible to New York with five shows at the intimate Judson Memorial Church and the band on stage at Madison Square Garden was that they had more room on stage to parade about with unrestrained glee. They’ve even learned how to protect their own. On Wednesday night, when Butler took a moment to point out the New York crowd where Hakeem Olajuwon schooled the Knicks in the mid-90s, they launched into “Neighborhood #3 (Power’s Out)” before anyone could react. Choosing not to challenge (or possibly agitate) the Garden crowd with the politics of “Windowsill” or the existential angst of “My Body Is A Cage,” Arcade Fire wrapped up the night with the unescapably anthemic “Wake Up.” The song’s splendor dissipates by the final chorus but the joyous swell of twenty thousand voices singing the wordless opening notes in unison more than carries the moment.

WHEN JASON ISBELL JOINED THE DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS, the Alabama natives, who had already mythologized their homeland and Lynyrd Skynyrd in their Southern Rock Opera, raised their game to new levels. In addition to filling the third amp of the triple-headed guitar monster popularized by their idols, Isbell added a third voice to the Truckers working the middle ground between the empathetic musings of Patterson Hood and the wizened recitations of Mike Cooley. Isbell’s departure from the band in 2007 left a noticeable void; A Blessing And A Curse and Brighter Than Creation’s Dark had their moments but lacked cohesiveness. Hood and Cooley have always been complementary voices and visions of the Southern experience. However, the absence of Isbell’s bridge only served to highlight the differences between the two.

On The Big To-Do, a third voice has emerged and it turns out it’s one that’s been there all along. Once you get past the fact that it belongs to longtime bassist Shonna Tucker, her gifts as a songwriter and vocalist reveal themselves in a startling and somewhat surprising display. In contrast to Hood’s somewhat comedic “Drag The Lake Charlie,” which concerns the fear that a friend’s thoughtless lapses might have a disturbing effect on his volatile spouse, Tucker posits a more resigned and defeated view amidst the soaring crescendos of “You’ve Got Another.” Cooley’s presence and let-me-tell-you-son bark isn’t as prominent as past efforts and The Big To-Do is heavy on Hood’s Springsteen-of-the-South narratives. Nonetheless, the Drive-By Truckers remain the preeminent chroniclers of the South and The Big To-Do is a fine return to form, unquestionably their best effort post-Isbell offering.

IN A MODEST PRESS RELEASE, U-Melt announced that they will be playing their farewell show, a Last Waltz if you will, at New York City’s HighLine Ballroom on November 26, 2010. From their press release:

Over the last seven years U-Melt has enjoyed all the unique experiences of being a touring rock band. We have criss-crossed the country, released three albums, and built a family of amazing friends and fans throughout the US. Recently we have found ourselves struggling through the economic downturn along with the rest of the country. After much discussion we have decided that it is time to close this chapter of U-Melt.
If you’ve been a reader of Earvolution for any period of time, you know how disheartening I find this news. In 2005, shortly after I began this “career” as a freelance journalist, I saw U-Melt in Greenwich Village at the Lion’s Den (the pre-renovation Sullivan Hall). Inadvertently borrowing advice from Lester Bangs, I felt compelled to proclaim the greatness of U-Melt to the world. To this day, I have never wavered from my belief that U-Melt’s unparalleled levels of creativity and musicianship should have catapulted them into the Zeitgeist of American music. I can’t say that Rob Salzer’s departure from the band on the eve of the release of Perfect World didn’t make this day foreseeable. It makes the sting no less dull and their phenomenal third studio album will now have to serve as a poignant reminder of U-Melt’s genius.

Here’s to wishing Zac Lasher, George Miller, Adam Bendy, Kevin Griffin (and Salzer) the best in their future endeavors. I’m looking forward to the reunion shows in 2018.

JIM BIANCO HAS A NEW ALBUM in the new works. Like most independent artists, cash flow is a problem but creativity is not. If you can watch this video and not donate a small sum, you are one hard-hearted individual and I recommend that you apply for a job within the music industry post haste.


Rinjo Njori! said...

U-Melt is breaking up... one less thing to harass you about and you to roll your eyes at me about. I asked several Canadian's about Arcade Fire this past weekend. Apparently Ontario alt rock circles prefer BSS and Quebecians (?) prefer Arcade Fire. talk about chosing sides. Regardles I am glad I found "others" who think Arcade Fire is all Hot wind and way to serious. BTW-- you should edit out "glee" since they are miserable.

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Grace Potter Rocking The Gear circa 2006!