NEON BIBLE

-- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 12:17 PM ET


Arcade Fire
Neon Bible
(Merge)

After you make an album called Funeral, you've got nowhere to go but up. And that's definitely the direction Arcade Fire have been headed ever since their debut full-length landed in 2004.

Inspired by the deaths of three bandmembers' relatives, Funeral made the experimental Montreal septet the undisputed darlings of indie-rock. More than two years later, that spell still hasn't worn off; if anything, it's only taken greater hold.

The group's hotly anticipated sophomore album Neon Bible has generated the sort of hype normally reserved for stadium-rock acts. The band played Saturday Night Live last week to advance the disc. Some indie CD stores are opening at midnight tonight to sell it to fans who can't wait until morning. And for those with deeper pockets, there's a deluxe edition that comes in a box with two flipbooks.

But what will those fans think of the music? Well, that depends how flexible they are. Given the band's dramatically increased fortunes of late, it should come as no surprise that Neon Bible -- titled after a teenage novel by Confederacy of Dunces author John Kennedy Toole -- is not the raw, relentlessly intense work of desperation and defiant originality that Funeral was. Which is not to say it's a sellout.

Arcade Fire are still light-years away from being even remotely commercial. Indeed, they still make some of the most anxious and unsettling music around. Their striking collision of wiry guitars, ethnic instruments, orchestral grandeur and post-rock textures -- all swimming in a vast ocean of reverb -- still sounds like the work of gypsies who grew up listening to The Velvet Underground. Yawping frontman Win Butler still sings like he's begging for his life, or at least his meds. And their lyrics are still alarmingly preoccupied with death and war and dread and paranoia.

But when they put it all together this time, what you get are 11 relatively accessible songs anchored by strong grooves and rooted in recognizable genres. Keep the Car Running, with its bouncing beat, nimble bassline, droning hurdygurdy, plucked melody and stomp-clap percussion, sounds like Bulgarian post-rockabilly -- especially once Butler's hushed, Alan Vega vocals kick in.

Intervention kicks off with opulent church organ, then opens wide into a grand, moody rocker complete with choir and Springsteenish overtones. Bad Vibrations' title, not to mention the high-flying background vocal of Butler's better half Regine Chassagne, acknowledges The Beach Boys. (Antichrist Television Blues) keeps the surf vibe alive -- and adds a jittery dash of Violent Femmes -- with its tom-tom beat, strummy acoustic guitar, slide notes and piercing, Theremin-like howl. The stormy Ocean of Noise makes you wish Roy Orbison were still alive to layer his operative pipes over its mournful, Mexicali-flavoured horns. The Well and Lighthouse has a thumping, pumping groove festooned with glistening, shimmering xylophone, guitar and keyboard tones. No Cars Go tops another propulsive beat with a hooky melody, sweet Win-Regine harmonies -- and shouted "Hey!" accents ready-made for audience participation.

No matter what the rest of the disc says -- and it says a lot -- those exclamations tell you everything you need to know about the difference between Funeral and Neon Bible. The former sounded like the band made it for themselves. Now, they sound like they're making music with an audience in mind -- and one far beyond the hipsters who first championed them. Maybe that's who Butler is consoling when he sings, "Nothing lasts forever, that's the way it's gotta be."

It's a bold move. Onward and upward.

Track Listing:

1. Black Mirror
2. Keep The Car Running
3. Neon Bible
4. Intervention
5. Black Wave/Bad Vibrations
6. Ocean Of Noise
7. Well & The Lighthouse, The
8. Antichrist Television Blues
9. Windowsill
10. No Cars Go
11. My Body Is A Cage


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