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Arcade Fire
The Suburbs
Vinyl LP
Review By Claude Lemaire

 

  Just on the heels of sweeping up four awards at The Junos and winning 'Album of the Year' last February at The Grammy's, I thought it timely to offer this review for those still sitting on the fences. So buckle up for a ride in "The Suburbs". The album cover artwork is elegant with a light gloss to it. The back cover is really classy with the silver letters engraved on the dark background; you can't help but want to touch it. The rigid carton opens in two, each record housed individually in its carton sleeve with no inner plastic film to protect the grooves.Both 180g slabs of vinyl pressed at RIP-V (situated in Québec, Canada not far from Montreal) were flat and perfectly silent throughout the four sides which is promising for this relatively young pressing plant. Indeed it is fairly rare these days that one encounters not even one 'tick' or 'pop' on a double LP from what is considered an independent rather than an audiophile label. I'd say it is in the same league as RTI in the U.S. and Pallas in Germany.

I find it's a mature album, strong and inspiring in musical content and in vision. Sadly such is definitely not the case sound wise. This is truly unfortunate because it robs the power from what could have been a powerful album. And because it's so unequal in sound we don't have a choice but to analyze it track by track.

Side A
Track 1
The opening track "The Suburbs" makes a great entree and impression with a strange sad / 'happy go lucky' feeling reminiscent of Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds (Capitol) intertwined with a hint of Pixies "Monkey Gone to Heaven" off Doolittle (4AD) and REM's "Losing My Religion". The sound is just slightly compressed with deep enough lows creating a nice foundation, good detail on the strumming acoustic guitar, good ambience, big high soundstage plus a sweeping crescendo towards the end that segue into the next track. So up to this point I was quite enthusiastic, preparing myself for some great artistic/sonic splendor but then...

Track 2
horrors of horrors it all fell apart. The heavy compression made the sound bright, the guitars distorted — i.e. the recording of it, not the musician's amp — which made the whole thing too loud so I had to get up and lower the volume. The latter is always very frustrating for it breaks the mood and defies the 'original intent' of the producer or musicians by which I'm guessing was to sound more intense than the previous lighter song. So not surprisingly listener fatigue set in a short time, too bad 'cause the song possessed a good catchy riff.
A word of advice, heavy compression and hard limiting is not the solution, it is the problem! It makes you sound loud, thin and wimpy instead of powerful, big and imposing. In the end we'll just turn down the level, skip to the next track or shut the damn thing off.

Track 3
"Modern Man" is a great little song in the Pixies mold a la "Here Comes Your Man" off Doolittle (4AD) not only in form but sound also. Good punchy kick drum on the warmish and intimate side. It is overall less compressed, less loud and slightly less distorted. So yes, this is a welcome relief after the previous one. Was there a glimmer of hope after all?

Track 4
Nooo..."Rococo". Much too compressed, distortion on acoustic guitar, sibilance on vocal. The last half of the song gets louder still with even heavier compression and a 'crescendo' of distortion. Listener fatigue set in so I lowered the volume. Simply unbearable.

Side B
Track 5
The pace shifts into higher gear with "Empty Room" as the torch is passed for the first time from Win to Régine with great energy. Once again compression shows its ugly head making the track too loud. The lack of bass gives it an up tilted tonal balance as we segue into...

Track 6
Worse with no bass whatsoever! Only things left are the very compressed exposed mids and highs. Like the song says it feels /sounds like a 'Private Prison'. The listener fatigue was at the max making a convincing argument for a quality remote control attenuator (which unfortunately is not an option with my present preamp). Coincidentally this sonic low point is matched by the less inspiring song music wise also. To think that back in 1984 I figured we'd pretty much reached 'rock bottom' in sound with the release of "Girl Just Want To Have Fun" and "Footloose", I guess nobody can rightly predict the future.

Track 7
Musically repetitive, not much more interesting than the previous track. Heavy compression, distortion, overly bright, no lows. Even with the volume closed, with my ear next to the stylus in the rotating groove, I could easily detect the distortion! Once again this is not artistic distortion as Radiohead employs now and then juxtaposed with cleaner sounds for 'contrast' effect.

Track 8
Opens with a 4/4 electro-pop kick which brings a welcome relief that reassures us that the percs are not totally forgotten in the mix. Drawing from early 1980's Simple Minds / Human League territory; some low cords help but too bad again too distorted. Probably around 15% to 20% signal distortion the whole tune! Listener fatigue of course.
So Side 2 was worse overall than Side 1 effectively making it the most objectionable of the four. Because of the exaggerated compression and distortion, I had to stop temporarily my review at the end of Record 1 and resume Record 2 the following day to let my ears recuperate from this assault that eventually could lead to 'hard ear' syndrome. I'm not joking.

Side C
Track 9
Good keyboard on this excellent new wave / cold wave / early 1980's electro-pop rhythm, marred by too much compression and annoying brightness. Because the guitar is too loud, the vocal gets lost a bit in the mix. Staying faithful to the concept form; just like Side A and B, the first song segue into the second.

Track 10
Strangely but nicely done we are transported to what feels like a simpler place and time by way of a folksy 'Americana' vibe. At last we're spoiled with some good bass and less compression. You can imagine, it is quite welcomed.

Track 11
Here 'echo's of "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" off Sgt. Peppers (EMI Parlophone) can be felt. Compressed but at the limit of tolerable but also gets worse as the song progresses.

Track 12
Introduced by the piano followed by syncopated beats. Synth cords add to the ambience ending with the piano playing a single note in perpetual like an echo sliding into the dead wax; too bad they didn't cut an endless groove.

Musically Side C is up to now the strongest, with a more even though far from, great sound.

Side D
Track 13
Radiohead influenced with a sad reflective mood. Floating clean sound.

Track 14
Change of ambience with Régine singing in a uplifting '1980's Kate Bush' mode plus some male backing adding a nice touch. Starts off with kick drum plus nice very deep lows, giving it a very early 1980's electro feel. A bit of compression but good tonal balance compensates.

Track 15
"Suberban War" gives a hint of Springsteen / Tom Petty. Smooth sound, nice tonal balance. Less compressed at first but the last half gets quite louder and distorts.

Track 16
The album ends with the continuation of "The Suburbs" this time they both sing with synth accompanying them in the background. Finally we are greeted by superb powerful deep notes.

So an equally strong side confirming that Record 2 is musically more inspiring and constant in sound than Record 1.

So summing all this up, what I find really awful for the band is that they obviously went to so much trouble and money no doubt to merge (no pun intended) the wonders of the past — tubes, analog tape, lacquer, vinyl — with the present multi format 'web era' we live in but end up with subpar sonic glory. What they forgot or didn't know perhaps is that heavy compression was not part of the 'golden era' of tubes and wax, rather it is 'the cancer' of our era.

In retrospect when you think about it, it's not surprising that the album varies so much in sound, just count the number of locations and engineers that contributed to this 'jack in the box' outcome: no less than four studios (church included), not to forget the various apartment rooms and six engineers; too many cooks in the kitchen is often a recipe for disaster. This is even more so when you're creating a concept album where preserving a unified sound is more important than a 'compilation of singles' with no sound correlation.

To conclude, Arcade Fire's third effort The Suburbs is musically satisfying and recommended strictly on this basis, but definitely stay away from a sonic perspective.

 

 

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