This week on Tracking – a regular series in which we discuss our current favorite songs – you can listen to additions from Arcade Fire, Volcano Choir, DARKSIDE, Cults and King Krule.
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Arcade Fire - "Reflektor"
We should have seen this coming, right? After all, The Suburbs climaxed on the magnificent synth-bathed stomper “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” With James Murphy added to the mix, the unrepentant disco chug of Arcade Fire’s new single “Reflektor” arrives not as an oddity, but fait accompli, a logical conclusion. Still, hook and melody are merely a side concern here (in contrast to “Sprawl II”). Grounded in rhythm and instrumental textures, the song heralds another bold stylistic leap from Arcade Fire. “Reflektor” is seven-and-a-half minutes of steady drum-kit propulsion, interspersed here and there with angular guitar riffs, honking horn embellishments, tinkling keyboard notes, random electronic interjections, and even a cameo from David Bowie. Atop it all, Win Butler and Régine Chassagne sing as is if the fate of the humanity depends on the might of their vocal cords.
Rodin’s marble sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice – in their final, tragic embrace – adorns the cover of Reflektor, Arcade Fire’s fourth album. It appears Butler also mined his dog-eared copies of Edith Hamilton and The Republic when writing the album’s title track, which evokes two different Greek myths. The sad fate of Narcissus – the hunter who falls so in love with his own watery reflection that he perishes gazing at it, unsatisfied and alone – is recalled throughout Butler’s lyrics and is given visual representation on Anton Corbijn’s video for “Reflektor” (above). Butler, however, ultimately strikes his critique of modern life in general, and social media in particular, against the flint of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
Plato argued that our experience with the world is but a lesser copy of a perfect, supernatural realm. By that argument, any man-made image of everyday life, say a photograph, is a reproduction of a copy. Once uploaded to Facebook, the pic becomes an imitation of a reproduction of a copy. When a friend shares it, you now have a replica of an imitation of a reproduction of a copy. If it then goes viral? As Win Butler sings on “Reflektor,” it’s then “just a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection!” In other words, modern life begets emptiness until zero eventually multiplies with zero.
Vincent Morisset’s spectacular, technologically innovative, take on “Reflektor” offers a worldly response to Butler’s metaphysical concerns: embrace your body and others’ too, “break free” and dance. Arcade Fire’s new single may raise many timeless questions, but it also provides a simple, conclusive answer with every thumping beat. - Peter Tabakis
Volcano Choir - "Byegone"
With Bon Iver on hiatus and Volcano Choir now coming into full form, it seems that Justin Vernon is intent redefining himself not as the poster child for mainstream indie music but as a band member that simply wants to write good songs. Repave is a fitting project then as the album deals (cryptically, of course) with new beginnings, confronting the past, and finding something meaningful. “Byegone” taps into these themes, using both melodies and lyrics imbued with triumphalism to evoke a sense of escape. Yet as Vernon screams “set sail!” and transitions into the last verse, one can't help but feel that the phrase is a hopeful plea rather than a contented reflection.
The song's structure is simple enough, but it is littered with small details and Chris Roseanu's soaring riff is big enough to hold the track on its shoulders. Outside of those bursts of melody, the buzzing synth does well to create a sense of unease and Vernon's rhyme schemes are as clever as they are pretty. Ultimately, the track nails the kind of selective restraint that has been perfected by “mature” rock outfits such as The National or The Walkmen. There are moments of release but they never fully obscure the focus of the song, resulting in a feeling of completeness when the track fades out. This focus on structure and tone is not what propelled Vernon to stardom but it very well may be what makes him an excellent musician for years to come. - Drew Malmuth
DARKSIDE - "Golden Arrow"
Most would agree that the Darkside EP released in 2011 was excellent, and painfully brief. With only three songs, the icy, slow-moving funk that inhabited the album was gone before it had a chance to fully take hold. Now Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington are set to release Psychic, and “Golden Arrow” is the first preview of a more complete picture of DARKSIDE's sound. What a stunning picture it is. Harrington's eclectic, experimental tendencies ease seamlessly into Jaar's evolving take on dance music, making for eleven minutes of groovy rock embedded in a psychedelic soundscape.
A four minute intro of slow-moving synths and deep bass stabs can be tedious if handled poorly, but Jaar is gifted when it comes to shaping patient melodies that percolate slowly into a cohesive body. The background video (a house burning in super slow-motion) was picked for a reason. “Golden Arrow” is initially jet black, reverb-heavy sounds drifting off into the ether. Four minutes in the sound drops out and when the rhythm kicks back in, with an energy that belies its slow pace, the track begins in earnest. Dave Harrington's guitar work is as precise and funky as on the EP, but here it is layered into a more spacious blend of riffs. The various guitar lines wind their way through the mix, pulsating with the sporadic outbursts of bass. Seven minutes in, the vocals (here more dramatic and sweeping than on the EP) bring the song into its next peek and all that follows – the ascending bass line, the drawn out vocal manipulations, the eery tremolo guitar – inspires a blissful state of eyes-closed-head nodding.
DARKSIDE's music is dark and often sinister but there is an overall effect of warmth that is attributable both to the excellent production and the inviting melodies crafted by Harrington. “Golden Arrow” suggests that Psychic will pick up where the EP left off and delve into much deeper waters. If that is the case, it will be one of the best releases of the year. - Drew Malmuth
Cults - "I Can Hardly Make You Mine"
Far cry from many other boy-girl duos, Cults aren’t afraid to bare their teeth for their cause. While they’ll never be mistaken for sonic pioneers, their lead single from Static (which features some of the coolest album art you’ll see this year) introduces a couple of nastier tricks to their arsenal, allowing it to ever-so-slightly distinguish itself from the songs on their wonderfully nostalgic debut album.
Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion aren’t quite ready to swap out their surf boards for tabs of acid, but there’s a stormy, latent psychedelia that lingers for the whole of “I Can Hardly Make You Mine”. The reverb is less warm cloak than full metal jacket, and the pressure-cooked keys are dissonant and harsh. Most notably, the pace and timbre of the drums immediately brings to mind Tame Impala’s “Apocalypse Dreams”, even if Cults are still more concerned with chasing the opposite sex than existential displacement.
New additions notwithstanding, all of the touchstones of Cults’ throwback sound are here: Toothsome xylophones, wobbling guitars and limber percussion duke it out while a modestly uptempo beat ties everything together. It’s the rhythm section that really propels the song forward though, underpinned by a big, chewy bassline.
Rather than a classic lovesick narrative, “I Can Hardly Make You Mine” comes to grips with the aftermath of rejection. Follin begins with dreamy hypotheticals before reality sinks in: “I guess that this is just a crush,” she sighs. After the final fadeout, you’re more likely to remember her delivery than her words. The wild melodic hook at the song’s chorus is enough clear any mental fog you may have, and displays the group’s knack for timing their punchlines to perfection. - Brendan Frank
King Krule - "Easy Easy"
Maybe it's that I am an American, but quality British frontmen of the King Krule variety always seem to have a badass yet approachable bent that makes their music immediately satisfying. Guys like Joe Strummer or Alex Turner just ooze rock n' roll, and Archy Marshall has that characteristic in spades. “Easy Easy,” off of the excellent 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, is a slight track, opening up the album with a small taste of the driving riffs and ample attitude that is to follow. Still, it hammers home a lot of the qualities that make King Krule so charmingly gritty: the unadorned take on mundane everyday activities, the quirky voice over a scratchy guitar riff, the sly catchiness that keeps the replays plentiful. Marshall says that “when positivity seems hard to reach, I keep my head down and my mouth shut, cause if you're going through hell you just keep going.” It's hard to tell whether he is being genuinely reflective or satirizing this widespread mindset. In any case, it makes for a fun, unique, and engaging rock song, and there aren't quite enough of those these days. - Drew Malmuth