At a glance, the Arcade Fire is a no-brainer. They hail from Montreal, which today evidently equals a Chapel Hill home base in 1995. They have a couple as the main songwriting duo, which, pioneered in the heyday of Sonic Youth, is a theme that seems to be spiraling out of control. They supported the Wrens and Unicorns on tour this spring and summer, touting a self-released EP with packaging that more than resembled the designs used by Neutral Milk Hotel. And, surprise, they get signed to Neutral Milk Hotel's label, Merge Records of Chapel Hill.
Hype is a hideous bitch goddess, but there's no denying that the Arcade Fire's live performance justifies some anticipation about what the band could become, given a budget and distribution. With Funeral, they have expanded their sound beyond the narrow sonic precincts of their EP and begin to make a name for themselves in the sphere of multi-instrumental indie rock.
Funeral starts off with "Neighborhood #1," which Merge released earlier this summer as a seven-inch single. Slowly building with throbbing piano and guitar, it's the best possible intro to the record's sonic tones. But the band's youthful energy really begins to snowball with "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)," as a drumbeat straight out of indie-rock prep school -- or, say, Superchunk's "The First Part" -- gives way to an infectious guitar hook, then accordion, violin, and vocalist Win Butler shouting the hell out of a story: "Our older brother/ Bit by a vampire/ For a year we caught his tears in a cup." Abstract, yes, but the effect works well; this is what the Decemberists would sound like if Colin Meloy's testicles dropped.
Their zealous punch continues on "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)"; they nail a hook so infectious that James Murphy may double take. Unfortunately, Funeral's middle sags. "Crown of Love," a weepy piano ballad, is a bit obvious after the diverse energy of the first few tracks. The string accompaniment reeks of Bright Eyes's "False Advertising," which may be refreshing if you're an Oberst fan; lyrics like "I carved your name across my eyes" halfway through a record seem juvenile once you've been sold on the band's strength.
At least the guitar kicks in again in "Wake Up," where a grandiose, gospel-like chant backs up Butler's plea: "Children, wake up/ Hold your mistake up/ Before they turn the summer into dust!" It sounds like the Polyphonic Spree, but free of that saccharine, freaky cult vibe. And when least expected, the song cuts into Wham!-like drums and piano breakdown -- think George Michael and the other guy dancing with their "Choose Life!" T-shirts. Shifts like this sum this record up -- it comes out of nowhere but makes perfect sense.