Arcade Fire, Rebellion (Lies) (2004)

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Artist: Arcade Fire
Title: Rebellion (Lies)
Description: single; track, Funeral
Label: Merge/Rough Trade
Release date: 2004
First heard: 2004

On Saturday 17 March, 2007, I ventured southwest to Brixton Academy to see Arcade Fire play live on their fourth consecutive sell-out night at one of my favourite London venues with it proscenium arches and ski-slope floor. I had loved them on first listen, deeply involved with this gawky Montreal-coalesced co-op of Ontarians, Québéquoise and itinerants Californians since hearing their first-album-proper Funeral in 2004, and, with a regular weekday show on the nascent 6 Music, I had experienced them on heavy rotation, and backpedalled to their debut EP Arcade Fire. Twelve people had participated in creating the EP (or mini-album if you wish to haggle over semantic precedent); 15 were credited on Funeral, although the band’s nucleus was six. When they tour, they are these days between 12 and 14, but on that night they were 11. Like Downton Abbey, they have two Butlers.

I regarded my first Arcade Fire show as a pilgrimage, as I had started to get out less in the new century. By 2007, I was picking and choosing very carefully. According to the review I posted on my mothership blog Never Knowingly Underwhelmed, I piped their current album Neon Bible into my head on the train journey there, and Funeral on the train journey home. “I knew in my bones, and from what I’ve read, that it would be a semi-religious experience, and when I saw the huge church organ onstage, reassurance set in,” I wrote. (“Look at that organ and shit,” exclaimed an eloquent young student standing behind me.)

An even age range and gender split confirmed the Canadian or adopted-Canadian arts-lab as a thoroughly modern proposition. I noted a lot of people wearing glasses (I, at that stage, did not), all the better to see the band with. I felt part of a congregation of other believers, eyes wide open, ready to embrace and take communion. I only saw beer fly twice that night (I’d grown used to this sticky expression of joy at Arctic Monkeys shows), but both liquid explosions occurred during the encore, as if the real dicks could contain their excitement no longer. There was relatively aggressive moshing, but where I was standing, polite jigging on the spot was de rigueur.

Neon Bible was at number two in the UK album charts that week, behind the Kaiser Chiefs’ Yours Truly, Angry Mob, suggesting that the transition from airborne lager to Boots lens-wipes was not yet a done deal. More impressively perhaps, the Bible was also at number two in the Billboard album charts, behind Notorious BIG’s Greatest Hits. I deduced that perhaps an album about death (“working for the church while your family dies”) can never beat an album propelled by death. They foregrounded the current record that night, naturally, but the selections from Funeral proved crowd-pleasers: Power Out rain straight into Rebellion/Lies, and my world was complete.

Whether live or on record, the secret to Arcade Fire’s hope and glory is its expansiveness, which is neither forced nor over-calculated. Their best songs seem to grow to fill every nook of your attention as they go along. Even if they’re singing about the power being out in the heart of man or a great black wave in the middle of the sea they seem to do so with a unifying melancholy joy, or a joyful melancholy. Like a Charlie Chaplin film, they love being sad.

It’s hard to argue with the logic of that sequenced, near-consecutive run on Funeral, vis-à-vis the four numbered versions of Neighborhood – Nos. #1 #2 #3 and #4, subtitled Tunnels, Laika, Power Out and 7 Kettles (the first three released as singles, in numerical order!) – but if you think the record has peaked too early, Wake Up alerts you for what I consider to be the real deal: namely, Rebellion (Lies), again subtitled as if it’s the first Rebellion to make the grade. It takes everything we’ve heard and triples it.

I admire a song that starts with a bare, dull thud of a bass drum (I’m used to hearing it within the album, so it actually emerges from the siren-like squall at the end of Haiti), but that’s Arcade Fire all over. They’re builders. They’re layerers. They’re crescendo-seekers. They Icarus their way up, beyond sensible parameters and see how much further out there they can get without losing the tune. There are a lot of them. The drum marches through the preamble, created using I don’t know what instruments to form a kind of crackle, underpinned by that thump-thump-thump-offbeat!-thump. A bassline curls around it, then a clanky, Low-style piano. Butler’s first appearance.

Sleeping is giving in
No matter what the time is

A sentiment only available to a young man (Butler will have been in his early 20s when he wrote it), the song taps into mortality, in common with the entire suite of songs on Funeral, a work haunted by the death of relatives – grandparents in the main, although let us not dismiss this as the self-indulgence of youth: when your grandparents start to die, you’re one generation closer to the final curtain. Further on in the lyric, which gets into your skull through joyful repetition, Butler speaks of “hiding the night underneath the covers,” as if regressing to childhood, then jarringly flashes forward to hiding “your lovers, underneath the covers.” He’s adjusting the speed of life, experimenting, missing out great chunks in order to better understand the journey ahead to oblivion. The accompaniment rattles and hums around his chest-beating performance, augmented at every turn by more music. It swirls with Régine Chassange’s violin and parenthetical vocal (“Lies! Lies!”); there are handclaps, there is foot stomping, there are key changes, it’s a hoedown at a wake. When it ends, as life for all of us must, there is more scratching, as if behind sore eyelids.

Reminder: this is a band’s first album.

They don’t sample and sequence – or at least, they didn’t in their more artisanal incarnation, prior to Reflektor in late 2013 – they just play and play and play. Rebellion (Lies) is a memorial and a rebirth.

It was a hit in the UK – broke the Top 20, long before the band were solvent in Canada or the US – and abides as the band’s go-to encore. You may say I’ve not exactly dug deep here – especially with so much wonder still to come from The Suburbs and Everything Now – but I return to it again and again and again. And it still makes my heart leap.

Now here’s the sun, it’s alright!
Now here’s the moon, it’s alright!

Don’t have nightmares.

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The Shirelles, Baby It’s You (1961)

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Artist: The Shirelles
Title: Baby It’s You
Description: single; album track, Baby It’s You
Label: Scepter
Release date: 1961; 1962
First heard: circa 1970s

In 1985, Billy Bragg supported The Smiths on their first US tour. He told me when I was writing his biography that he’d had a “long conversation” with Morrissey on the tour bus about a subject that proved fertile common ground, the wonder of New Jersey girl group the Shirelles. Although Billy confessed he’d always mistakenly referred to them as The Shirlettes, having misread a sleeve. I sort of prefer it.

He wasn’t being so daft. The group was, after all, named after one of its founder members Shirley Owens, just customised to sound a bit more like the Chantels (the pioneering black female singing group from the Bronx). Shirley, Doris Coley, Addie “Micki” Harris and Beverly Lee had nascent local label boss Florence Greenberg to thank for their fortunes, and vice versa, as they gave Tiara Records its first hit in 1958 while still in their teens, I Met Him On A Sunday (licensed to Decca). After a period of uncertainty and musical chairs, the Shirelles found themselves back under Greenberg’s wing and signed to her next imprint, Scepter, with whom they’d have hits until 1963. But the Goffin-and-King-penned Will You Love Me Tomorrow in 1960 was the flame that lit the touchpaper and sent up the fireworks: it was the first Billboard number one for an African-American girl group. (They were women by then, of course, and historically not yet African-American either – I rather fear it would have been “coloured” at the time.)

Burt Bacharach was already a hitmaker in 1961 when he, regular partner Hal David’s brother Mack and the equally prolific Luther Dixon (who also produced) came up with Baby It’s You. The Beatles covered it on Please Please Me, and used the same arrangement, but let’s not pretend it holds a flame to the Shirelles’ original, which oozes heartache and all-the-girls-love-a-cad inevitability.

The backing is sublime, a potent cocktail of overstatement and understatement: the tambourine sounds like it’s the size of a dinner tray, while the backing “sha-la-la-la-la”s might be made of marshmallow, and the beat played with swizzle sticks. This is no wall of sound, more like a trellis, but what blossomy delights hang thereon. The addition of male backing singers hardens the sound once the intro has lured us in with its swooning incense, but Shirley Owens’ deftly modulated and surgically emotive lead vocal brings sweetness and light to this tale of manifest female destiny written by guys.

“It’s not the way you smile that touched my heart,” she confirms. “It’s not the way you kiss that tears me apart.” Either way, she is torn apart. “Uh-ho oh-ho,” she quivers, before letting us know that “many, many, many nights” roll by while she sits, typically, alone at home and cries over this bounder. “What can I do?” NB: not what can I do, but what can I do.

I can’t help myself
When baby it’s you
Baby, it’s you

Then the mood darkens. “You should hear what they say about you,” she trills, while her sisters intone, not that subliminally, “Cheat, cheat.” He’s not worth it, this guy. They say he’s “never, never, never been true,” and yet Shirlette is gonna love him any old way, despite what “they say.” (Cheat, cheat.) Begging ought not be her business, but beg she does: “Don’t leave me alone, please come home.” Baby, it’s him.

Their manager and label boss was a woman, a woman wrote the tune of their first number one, and they made giant steps for feminism just by their success, but like most girl groups, their words were often written by men trying to think like women. Like Crazy by Willie Nelson, Baby It’s You evidently works for either gender, but in a pre-liberation era, putting up with useless blokes was, lyrically, part of the patriarchal furniture. (See also: “He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” “Tonight the light of love is in your eyes, but will you still love me tomorrow?”, “But all you do is treat me bad, break my heart and leave me sad,” and on and on.)

The singing is so affecting and true, the music appears not to have much to add, but Dixon’s arrangement pulls back at just the right moments, dropping out completely before “’Cause baby, it’s you” for maximum melodrama, and placing the “cheat, cheat” aside just far back enough in the mix to make it sound like the other Shirelles are talking behind Shirley’s back. I take issue with the organ break at one minute 40, so shrill and intrusive it threatens to blow a hole in the atmosphere, but if anything it makes Shirley’s return to the mic all the more of a relief.

It fades, as all 60s songs fade, but not until she’s implored, “Come on home.” I realise I have a soft spot the size of a dinner tray for music of this stripe and timbre from this golden age, but what can I do?

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Beyond Belief (1982)

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Artist: Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Title: Beyond Belief
Description: album track, Imperial Bedroom
Label: F-Beat/Columbia
Release date: 1982
First heard: circa 1999

I’ve got a fee-e-ee-ling
I’m going to get a lot of grief

Although late to his albums, I can honestly say now that I listen to Elvis Costello in his prime in a state of awe. It is not to overstate the case to reveal that when I am in the presence of his finest work, I feel a real sense of privilege. And none more keenly than when I listen to Imperial Bedroom, the second of his LPs to invade me during the aforementioned lull at the end of the century when I forsook new music and flooded the gap with albums by classic artists I felt I had to get to know better.

Aware and noncommitally fond of his singles from Watching The Detectives through to A Good Year For the Roses in 1981, the first Elvis album I bought during that self-educational pre-millennial frenzy was Punch The Clock, from 1983. I was instantly hooked by the jaunty likes of Let Them All Talk and Everyday I Write The Book and the morose glory of Pills And Soap and his reclamation of Shipbuilding. So, Imperial Bedroom, released a year earlier, I came to from the wrong direction.

To name Beyond Belief, its opening track, as my all-time favourite, may seem odd, especially among all those memorable singles, not all of them hits, and the more obviously “important” Pills And Soap and Shipbuilding. Let’s be perfectly clear: I could list about 25 Costello songs, most but not all with the Attractions, that sit at my top table. I could make my selection from pretty much anything on Blood & Chocolate, or Get Happy!!, or Goodbye Cruel World, or King Of America, or the Attractionless Spike and Brutal Youth, or even, hey, The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet, perhaps its highlight I Almost Had A Weakness. (I’m rustier on his more recent works, but that must be resolved in my own time.)

But Imperial Bedroom does not put a single toe wrong, from its beguiling Barney Bubbles pastiche of Picasso to the orchestral fade of Town Cryer. And hearing track one Beyond Belief just makes me excited as it means I’ll soon be listening to the cheeky Tears Before Bedtime, the torrid Man Out Of Time, the heartbreaking Almost Blue, the gossamer Kid About It, and the crooked waltz of Imperial Bedroom itself, which came only as a bonus track on the CD (typically for Elvis, the title track of an album rarely features on that album – you’ve got to love that about him, the ornery fellow).

Beyond Belief, a short hop at two and a half minutes, drops us without much warning into Fabs engineer Geoff Emerick’s studio environment: a little hissy, dare I say, which suits the energy of the performances and with enough reverb to give melodrama to Elvis’s voice; out of a simple bassline and some tickled hi-hat and a barely audible sustained keyboard chord it comes, “History repeats the old conceits, the glib replies, the same defeats,” he trills, almost blue already. (History doesn’t repeat here, of course, as it’s the first Elvis album without Nick Lowe at the controls.) He’s mannered, of course, dipping down in self-parody, rising up for the line, “in a very fashionable hovel,” and I truly understand why, like Dylan’s, certain respectable adults have a problem with his voice. That nasal voice. Almost sneering. But these are the elements which I love about it. And the clever wording around which he wraps his tonsils!

I think it was the way this opener ensnared me at first listen that keeps me coming back to it, to sup from the fountain. Who but McManus would even construct phrases like “this almost empty gin palace” or “her body moves with malice” or “locked in Geneva’s deepest vault” and expect them to fit into a two-tiered pop song? Around every corner with this erudite songsmith you get a new arrangement of the English language that intrigues and challenges and paints pictures every bit as colourful and bendy as Barney Bubbles’. “You’ll never be alone in the bone orchard”? I mentioned awe, right? It’s like reading a great novelist, or listening to a great orator at the stump, or seeing a beautifully but assymetrically framed shot in a foreign film. I’m not even sure at this remove what Beyond Belief is about, and that’s the alchemy. Most Elvis songs seem to be about relationships gone South. This one certainly “seemed so appealing” but now it’s “beyond belief.”

About a minute in, Pete Thomas goes all over his kit, and the song prepares to go up a gear; there’s even a gunshot, or what sounds like one. By the time Steve Nieve’s piano cascades we’re into full pulp fiction mode: a lot going on at a high level of emotion, in a very confined space. It’s head-spinning. And it doesn’t really have a chorus, it’s kind of all verse. I guess you might even dismiss it as a kind of intro, rather than a song, an establishing shot, a mood-setter, but it has it all, from where I’m sitting, even if it does fade out way too soon. Hello, cruel world.

I’ll admit to going for long periods without calling up my Elvis Costello and/or the Attractions albums, and I always wonder why. As a lyricist of quality and distinction, he’s in the superleague. As a singer of character and tenacity, he is out there on his own. As an albums artist, he’s David Bowie with a band. To quote Town Cryer, from the end of Side Two, he’s “a little down, with a lifetime to go.” Amen to that.