Sharing the Shuffle – Empty Room (Arcade Fire)

(This is a new feature of The Popcorn Scoop. Basically, whenever I’m stuck for an idea, I’ll throw iTunes on shuffle and write a post about the first song that comes up. Incidentally, I haven’t listened to about two thirds of my iTunes library, so this will be just as exciting for me as for you.)

I hate awards shows for the same reason many people hate awards shows – there is something abjectly sickening about rich, famous, successful people taking up our time, attention, and airspace to lavishly congratulate themselves based on parameters they make up. The whole system reeks of exclusion and a desire to make you feel like you’re eleven years old again and didn’t get invited to Snooty McSnobbington’s slumber party. And yet, I can’t help but follow along, unwillingly though inevitably getting at least some sense of the winners, the upsets, the outrages, and the public’s ultimately resigned response. (You’re going to do this every year, whether we like it or not, the blogs murmur. We might as well pretend to care. Or at least make a big deal about how unruffled we are by it all.)

So, while I did not watch the Grammy’s, I did see the response to Arcade Fire’s Album of the Year win by people who thought they were being clever and original by hating on hipsters. Personally, while I’m happy for the band and pleased that alternative music is getting some recognition, my overall opinion of Arcade Fire is a general “meh.” I listen to them sporadically, but I’ve never really become a devotee. Their music lies right on the border of my tastes; I enjoy it in small doses, but I’ve never been able to sit down and listen to one of their albums the whole way through.

But, that being said, “Empty Room” is one of my favorite Arcade Fire songs. It’s kind of a weird melding of genres, beginning with rapid violin ripples with a classical vibe and then flowing into the drums and guitars of contemporary rock. The whole time, though, it doesn’t quite give into either influence, balancing beautifully on both sides of the musical divide. The song does not, however, remain static; as it moves forward, it evidences a progression of its tonal arc. The beginning of the song grabs you with its intensity – it feels almost desperate. But then, as the song continues, it begins to settle down, the song feeling like it’s having fun. Finally, the song fades at the end into eerie, haunting echoes, which I assume (considering the caliber of this band) blend seamlessly into the next song on the album.

Unfortunately, this song also includes what is possibly my least favorite aspect of Arcade Fire – namely, their vocals. I don’t have a problem with the lyrics themselves – at least, I don’t think I do. I can’t know for certain because they are nearly impossible to understand. Arcade Fire uses the same kind of cloudy, weak vocals which are so, so common in contemporary indie music. I don’t have a problem with discordant vocals as a rule – Neutral Milk Hotel is one of my favorite bands – but this music begs for a more melodic sound. I suppose this is better than abusing Auto Tune (aaaaand, daily Glee burn, check), but I honestly find it almost as off-putting. I will readily admit that this is a personal preference, but I fail to understand why being experimental and nonconformist means being unable to carry a tune.

Nonetheless, a few cycles on repeat and the issue of the vocals fades in importance. The great thing about Arcade Fire’s music is that it’s thick and layered; subsequent listens reveal facets hidden by merely having the radio on in the background. Moreover, this song is just cool – the use of classical influence is surprising and interesting to the ear, and is in and of itself reason enough to listen a few times. Again, this song is not perfect, but I’m going to come down on the side of good and note that Arcade Fire absolutely deserved that Grammy.

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