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“I’ve been moved by albums a lot more than I’ve been moved by singles, and we’re an album band. I’m not going to stop making albums because of some fad of digital distribution.”
——Win Butler
A BIG WEEK FOR ARCADE FIRE
Two Shows at Madison Square Garden, a Live Stream on YouTube and Vevo, Rave Reviews Accompany the Release of The Suburbs
While it’s been another rough year for the majors—new-breed pop divas, veteran white rappers and coed country trios excepted—2010 represents another period of advancement for the stars of indie rock. Vampire Weekend’s sophomore confection Contra (XL Recordings) debuted at #1 in January (the album has tallied 373k as of last week), followed by a Top 5 bow for Spoon’s Transference (Merge, 128k) and a similarly strong start for The National’s High Violet (4AD, 131k). Because indie-label deals are typically a 50/50 revenue split after expenses are recouped, these numbers are more significant to the bands who generate them than they might appear. 

Meanwhile, indie-label graduates James Mercer of The Shins (Broken Bells on Columbia, 221k) and indie-major hybrid Band of Horses (Fat Possum/Columbia, 108k) are selling healthy numbers of albums and tickets to accompany their glowing critical receptions. And let’s not forget about 2009’s indie darlings, Phoenix, whose breakthrough LP Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Glassnote), has added another 190k to its toal, while labelmates Mumford & Sons are showing early signs of duplicating that feat (87k and starting to move).

All of this heartening activity—which proves that rock’s traditional die-hard audience isn’t extinct, just miniaturized and segmented—sets the stage for tomorrow's much-ballyhooed release of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, the most anticipated indie release in recent memory—it’s being greeted in the alternative universe with the same degree of fervor that lifted up Eminem’s Recovery in the greater solar system.

Last week, the band played in front of 45k people at the Festival d’Été de Québec, near their Montreal base. On Wednesday and Thursday of his week, they’ll headline two nights at Madison Square Garden, on a perfect bill that also includes labelmates Spoon. Thursday’s show will be streamed live on YouTube, presented by American Express, which reportedly paid a pretty penny for the arrangement. Check out the movie-trailer-ish tease for the show on Vevo.

The media build-up has been picture-perfect. In Rob Sheffield’s four-star lead review in Rolling Stone (which reads like a five-star rave), after noting “the gargantuan scale” of the band’s “anthemizing,” he writes: “On their fantastic third album, The Suburbs, they aim higher than ever… In their dictionary, ‘suburbs’ is nowhere near ‘subtlety.’ But that just adds to the emotional wallop.”  

The Sunday edition of the N.Y. Times featured a story on the band’s ascent by the paper’s reliable lead critic Jon Pareles—the kind of high-profile exposure you can’t buy. “The Garden shows are another conquest for a band that has barely been heard on commercial pop radio stations yet had its previous album, Neon Bible, make its debut at #2 on the Billboard album chart in 2007,” Pareles point out. “According to Nielsen SoundScan, Neon Bible has sold more than 439,000 copies in the United States, while the band’s 2004 debut album, Funeral, recently passed 504,000 copies—a megahit for an indie-rock band.”

Pareles’ descriptions are illuminating and his facts accurate—except for sticking a “the” in front of the band name. “The Arcade Fire’s songs,” he points out, “mingle the punky and the symphonic, the cryptic and the heart-on-sleeve, the self-doubting and the anthemic, often with surging crescendos that make the tunes optimistic despite themselves. It’s both a stomping rock band and a mini-orchestra, complete with string section, accordion or medieval hurdy-gurdy as needed…

“The music…harks back to styles that shook up the late 1970s and early 1980s—new wave, David Bowie’s avant-glam-rock, synth-pop—but shapes them with the Arcade Fire’s own sense of structure and timing. Songs rarely end as they began. Cozy acoustic arrangements take on eerie shadows, snappy rockers make tricky turns, wistfulness expands to grandeur. The album doesn’t resolve its own questions; it expands their mystery.”

“I’ve been moved by albums a lot more than I’ve been moved by singles, and we’re an album band,” bandleader Win Butler told Pareles. “I’m not going to stop making albums because of some fad of digital distribution. The idea that you just have to make bad cheap stuff and sell it cheaply because the format changes, to me, is crazy. It’s more important than ever to me to have the artwork and the recording be as great as they can be.”

Nonetheless, the band has chosen to allow Amazon MP3 a four-day window to make the album available for download at $3.99 (for $6 more you can grab it in all its glory at Best Buy). The likelihood that the iTunes Store will make The Suburbs virtually invisible in response to the Amazon play won’t stop hard-core fans and the curious alike from finding it.

Speaking of online activity, Pareles’ piece has already occasioned a flood of emailed reader comments—enough of a sampling to suggest this band is now big enough to inspire a backlash, seemingly composed of cynics who find them overly sincere, which happened on a larger scale in the previous decade with U2. But that comes with the territory Arcade Fire is entering at this crossroads moment in the band’s career.

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He's lost 25 out of 26, and so tired of winning!
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