Another excellent album from an outstanding young band, plus Bryan Ferry remaking Dylan and Rufus Wainwright being Judy Garland Rock column, Mail on Sunday, March 4 2007
Merge Records, out tomorrow
Virgin, out tomorrow
Two years ago a bunch of earnest young Canadians in waistcoats and braces released an album called Funeral and established themselves as the world’s most exciting new band. Now Arcade Fire are back with a second album, Neon Bible, which should put them well on the way to mainstream stardom.
They have done it by being independent, not merely appearing on a small label but fearlessly ploughing their own furrow. Most young bands today start from one of three templates: Coldplay, Oasis or Franz Ferdinand. Arcade Fire don’t. Instead they bring to mind Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Phil Spector and Brian Wilson.
Plenty of bands down the years have been influenced by these giants, just not all at once. Bowie and Talking Heads are art-rockers, while Springsteen has been accused of many things, but never of being arty. Arcade Fire have hit on a revolutionary new compound: art and soul.
Any fears that they might struggle to follow their excellent debut are dispelled in the first minute. The opening track, Black Mirror, builds a wall of sound that becomes the foundation for a great surge of emotion.
The words are doom-laden, but the beat is infectious, the instruments are uplifting, the aeroplane noises are fun, and Win Butler’s vocals are rivetingly intense. Black Mirror takes its place alongside A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall and Road To Nowhere as one of rock’s great jeremiads, dancing all the way to disaster.
The pleasure continues with Keep The Car Running, an irresistible concoction of chants, thuds, strums, handclaps and ohhh-whoahs. The album has begun with such brio that you wonder where it can go next. Shrewdly, Arcade Fire opt to turn the heat down with the title track, a violin-led ballad that exudes an air of likeable menace.
Just when you think they’ve calmed down, they start the next song, Intervention, with an organ. Not an electric one, or a Hammond, but a church organ. It’s a gamble: things could be about to go all Phantom Of The Opera.
They pull it off by using the organ as the backdrop for a folk protest song, which takes aim at war-mongering by turning some of its traditional weapons – a marching beat, a stirring refrain, the majesty of church music – on itself. Seen through the eyes of the soldiers and their families, it’s a modern hymn: Onward Secular Soldiers.
Grandeur in rock often tips over into bombast, but not here. It helps that Arcade Fire come from a country that has never ruled the world, and that one of their central figures is a woman, Regine Chassagne, who plays accordion, sings second lead, and is married to Win Butler.
It also helps that they don’t achieve their grandeur through the guitar, the most egotistical of instruments. Their sound, lush and organic, is very much that of a band, and their rhythms have an exuberance that harks right back to the Fifties: on two tracks here, they pioneer Bo Diddley art-rock.
The second half of Neon Bible is just as powerful as the first, with another classic in the making in the urgently lovely paranoia anthem Windowsill. The result is an album that will sweep you away.
One of art-rock’s founding fathers, Bryan Ferry, has taken a break from the tricky politics of his current day job – reuniting Roxy Music, 25 years after their last record – to release a solo album. Recorded in a week with his touring band, Dylanesque simply consists of 11 Bob Dylan songs.
It’s a beguiling project, and a historic one. Never before has one major rock artist made an album of another’s material. This is something jazzmen do, and the great popular singers (Ella Sings Gershwin), but not rock stars. The closest equivalent is probably Jennifer Warnes’s album of songs by Leonard Cohen, Famous Blue Raincoat, which was a modest treat.
Ferry has earned the right by making three excellent Dylan covers in the past – a barnstorming version of Hard Rain on his first solo album, These Foolish Things, and stylish remakes of Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right and It’s All Over Now Baby Blue on his last one, Frantic. He first mooted the idea of doing a Dylan album at the time of Hard Rain. Thirty-four years later, here it is, which is good going even by Ferry’s legendary standards of dithering.
Most of these songs had already appeared by then. Ferry wisely concentrates on Dylan’s glittering heyday, picking only one song – Make You Feel My Love, from Time Out Of Mind – written after 1974. But the waiting has not been in vain.
Dylan is more talked-about now than he has been for decades, and Ferry is better equipped to interpret him. His voice is a warmer, more supple instrument than the stylised yodel of his youth. He has more experience to draw on, and he has gathered a gifted ensemble around him, from the jazz pianist Colin Good to the ambient guitarist Leo Abrahams.
As Ferry’s rich palette meets Dylan’s scintillating vocabulary, every track offers elegance squared. Ferry is not afraid to give a classic a sharp twist: on Positively 4th Street, Dylan’s snarling impatience with his faithless fans is replaced by a gentle regret that could almost be paternal. The subtext seems to be: Otis, dear boy, do try not to get arrested again.
The Times They Are A-Changin’ is recast as a strutting blues chug. For Ferry, it’s the most political lyric he has ever tackled; for the song, it’s surely the first time it has landed in the hands of an English gentleman of 60-plus who supports the Countryside Alliance. When he sings ‘the order is rapidly fading’, it come across as a dig at New Labour. Politicians come and go, while rock stars carry on regardless.
There are two more gems here. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues is as lyrically vivid as the original (‘when you’re lost in the rain in Juarez, and it’s Easter-time too’) but far more melodically rewarding. Make You Feel My Love, a stately gospel-tinged ballad whose simplicity is untypical of both Dylan and Ferry, glows with a gorgeous shimmer.
The album is let down only by two dull choices, Knocking On Heaven’s Door and All Along The Watchtower: even Ferry has little to add to the famous covers by Clapton and Hendrix. Overall, though, this is the most interesting album Dylan has never recorded. Ferry should do a series: Lennonesque, Cohenesque, Al Greenesque…
Rufus Wainwright too has been paying tribute to a fellow singer, recreating the famous 1961 concert by Judy Garland. His second and final night at the Palladium drew a first-night crowd (Ian McKellen, Jeremy Irons, Trevor Nunn) that made for a terrific sense of occasion.
The music was patchy, despite the best efforts of a full orchestra. Rufus was too busy soaking up the applause to locate the emotion in more than a few of the songs, which wasn’t very Garlandesque of him. For me, the best bit was when his sister Martha and their mother, Kate McGarrigle, gave a beautiful, studious reading of Someone To Watch Over Me. But he did handle Over The Rainbow, a difficult old chestnut, with understated aplomb.