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.
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...
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.
"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?
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.
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...
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Radiohead influenced with a sad reflective mood. Floating clean sound.
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.
"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
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
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.