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Present-day orchestral pop may be the last, best fruit of the tree of irony that Oscar Wilde planted over a century ago. Orch pop, as it’s known to Pitchfork readers too young to know all that much about Scott Walker or the Left Banke, is both beloved and played by the kinds of latter-day dandies who prefer art to nature and camp to camping. It’s rock with a dyed carnation in its buttonhole—or, to paraphrase Nick Lowe, it’s pure fop for now people. It also happens to be a surefire way of weeding out friends who lack a sense of humor.
Two up-and-coming bands define the genre’s various states d’art: The Music Lovers, who reside in San Francisco but hail from giddy London, are arch traditionalists, happy to linger in the lavender shadows of Walker, Jacques Brel, and solo-era Morrissey. Montreal’s the Arcade Fire, by contrast, is doing something much more personalized and unconventional.
Music Lovers mastermind and vocalist Matthew Edwards may have gone on record as saying there’s “no irony” on his band’s first full-length, The Words We Say Before We Sleep, but from the album’s opening lines—“The former Miss Ontario retires with the first cigarette of the year”—it hardly sounds as if he were convinced of the importance of being earnest, either. Unapologetic cinéastes, the Lovers (who filched their name from a 1971 Ken Russell flick and the cover art for their first EP from the 1975 Maysles brothers’ documentary Grey Gardens) approach every song as if it’s a motion picture. Though their plots aren’t as hilariously morose as those of the former Smiths frontman, they still know a thing or two about achieving the ideal mixture of wit and woe. “I started out with nothing,” Edwards sings on “Virginia Lights,” “and I’ve still got most of it left.”
Opener “The Former Miss Ontario” is an utterly fabulous foray into Las Vegas neon and glitz, and perhaps the finest trope about Sin City since Mark Eitzel invoked Johnny Mathis. You’re swept into an elegant ballroom of sound from vibes and strings; there Edwards name-drops French composer and jazz pianist Michel Legrand and in general does his best Wayne Newton against a shimmering brass backdrop. Almost as good is “This World vs. the Next World (Revisited),” a reprise from that first EP, Cheap Songs Tell the Truth, in which our man plights his “troth to the underground” and announces his intention to turn “all the kids on to the San Francisco sound.” It’s unlikely he’s talking about the Grateful Dead, however: Mickey Hart surely never conjured a Europop beat this slinky-smooth.
Like his overserious colleagues in Stereolab, Edwards is too busy constructing his own idiosyncratic history of the sounds of the ’60s to worry a whole lot about the accepted one. “Sunday,” for example, is 21st Century Man’s answer to “Downtown,” a sad yet sunny number that evokes lazy strolls on hazy, golden, late-autumn days in the city. And the hushed, piano-threaded “The Gold Rush Variations” recalls a certain Neil Young album more than anything by J.S. Bach—although before you know it, Edwards’ thespian instincts have gotten the better of him and he’s crooning about “cigarettes and glue,” pronouncing “penchant” like “pawn shop,” and flinging grandiloquence about like glitter. (“We tethered ourselves to the stars in the hope of salvation.”)
Funny thing is, it basically works. The album’s only losers are the mannered, wannabe-Brazilian “Delinquent Lullaby” and “Nothing,” which sounds too much like the Zombies for its own—or anybody’s—good. Of course, much of The Words We Say Before We Sleep sounds strangely familiar. But Edwards & Co. aren’t exactly revivalists. For one thing, they’d rather assemble their own Land of Make-Believe than re-create anyone else’s past. For another, they’re just too much like Oscar Wilde: always in on the joke.
The Arcade Fire’s new Funeral is garnering ecstatic press, and for good reason: The Canadian moresome—at last count, some 15 musicians—has created an oddly intimate sprawl of sound that is as intriguing as it is hard to categorize. There’s something here for almost everybody: soaring strings for the orch-poppers, lots of quirky, Pixies-like guitar for the indie-rockers, cathartic intensity for the emo crowd.
Orch pop is generally a conservative undertaking. Both Morrissey’s Kray Brothers and Billy Fury fetishes and Neil Hannon’s fascination with Michael Caine and Noel Coward—not to mention pretty much Edwards’ whole stage persona—reveal an obsession with an idealized past when people were wittier and wore better clothes. But if the Arcade Fire’s husband-and-wife team of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne is obsessed, it’s with their own lost youth. Beneath all of Funeral’s talk of neighborhood—the first half of the album is a kind of minisuite set presumably in Montreal’s quartiers—lurks the Arcade Fire’s real theme, the terrible price we pay for growing up: “Time keeps creeping through the neighborhood,” sings Butler in “Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles),” “killing old folks, waking up babies/Just like we knew it would.”
To be fair, Funeral has its share of clunkers: It’s hard to hear “Crown of Love,” which harks back to the mythical ’50s of Grease both in title and sound, without imagining John Travolta singing it to Olivia Newton-John. And though the lazy, Caribbean-flavored “Haiti” has a certain charm, with Chassagne lilting breathily about throwing ashes into the sea over steel drums and lots of pretty-bird and ocean sounds, it’s sorely out of place on this album. And set-closer “In the Back Seat” wastes a Meat Loaf–worthy title on a too-limpid melody, some Björk-lite vocals, and a bunch of words that have nothing to do with vehicular sex.
But given the extraordinarily high quality of the disc’s other seven tunes, raising such quibbles is what some would call crying with a loaf of bread under each arm. “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” pits a throbbing guitar against a haunting piano that sounds as if it had been recorded in another century as Butler wonders whatever happened to parents over Chassagne’s ABBA-esque backing vocals. Follow-up “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” unites a disciplined drum thump with a nifty accordion and some spiraling guitars, over which an excitable Butler dispenses aphoristic wisdom. (“If you want something, don’t ask for nothing/If you want nothing, don’t ask for something.”) “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” is a power-chord-driven bit of chug-a-lug that features Butler frantically running around looking for light, for a way out, for the kind of release that comes only through screaming—which he does.
“Wake Up” is another purgative. Its ferocious guitar wank and choir of what sounds like Norse children provide the perfect backdrop for Butler to muse on growing old: He does the math, concludes that older equals hearts grown colder, and concedes, “I guess we’ll just have to adjust.” “Rebellion (Lies),” by contrast, seems to be about literally living your dreams: “Come on, baby, in our dreams/We can live our misbehavior,” sings Butler. “Come on, hide your lovers, underneath the covers.”
In either case, the tone is elegiac, and Funeral’s sentiment throughout is positively Wordsworthian. (“There’s some spirit I used to know/That’s been drowned out by the radio,” sings Butler on “Neighborhood #4.”) It’s no easy business to make such nostalgia seem vital, but both the Arcade Fire and the Music Lovers manage it, whether by reflecting on the eclipsed powers of childhood or on some lost but glorious age of glamour. Both bands have been expelled from some Eden, even if that Eden never existed in the first place. And if they can’t go home again, both make an art of the backward glance.CP