ARCADE Fire's fourth album, Reflektor, had the kind of advance press most bands can only dream of: the guerilla marketing campaign; the much-publicized contributions of LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy and David Bowie; the Roman Coppola-directed TV special. All this for an album that was already among the most anticipated releases of 2013.
And generally, Arcade Fire's ambitious, if indulgent, double album delivers. The first half is punctuated by moments of pure pop brilliance -- the infectious joie de vivre of Here Comes the Night Time, inspired by Haitian rara music; the David Byrne-indebted Normal Person; the slinky Billie Jean bassline on We Exist. The interplay between Win Butler and Régine Chassagne's ethereal voices is more haunting (and precise) than ever, and there's certainly no shortage of hooks. Disc 1 thrillingly sounds like a modern Talking Heads album.
And then it stops making sense.
While the first half was dynamic and kinetic, Disc 2 feels bloated (it's a grower, if one's being charitable). Coming off 2010's double album The Suburbs, Arcade Fire would have been wise to edit. One or two epics are fine; but when nearly every song is an opus, 75 minutes starts to feel like a slog. ***1/2
DOWNLOAD THIS: Here Comes the Night Time
-- Jen Zoratti
Greg MacPherson Band
Fireball (Disintegration Records)
WINNIPEG'S Greg MacPherson is a hard-working, socially engaged artist who somehow finds time to create inspired rock music while serving the executive director of a busy local community organization. His sixth album, Fireball, is a set of songs that will please old G-Mac fans but bring new acolytes to the fold.
The album opens with the controlled thump of 1995 -- a definitive track if ever there were one. The simple guitar-bass-drums arrangement is made more arresting by the fragment of echo added to the singer's vocals. Throughout the album, MacPherson uses his voice in, for him, at least, a looser manner. He whoops, whispers and howls, and this freedom brings the listener closer to the emotion of the songs and the singer. It's this connection that makes the album special. Drummer Rob Gardiner proves a perfect counterpart to MacPherson's basic vibe. His technique is rock-solid, but he shows even more skill when a song like Sand Hand gets moving in a dissimilar direction.
MacPherson's lyrics generally skew to the personal without being lachrymose or overly sentimental, and Fireball maintains that vision. He sings life as he feels it and it is easy for any listener to connect with his words on various levels. Fireball burns with a zeal that isn't faked and this artist has again proved his singular vision is worthy of broader notice. ****
DOWNLOAD THIS: Goes Like This
-- Jeff Monk
Drinks After Work (Show Dog/Universal)
TOBY Keith opens his new album with a song that utilizes the hip-hop rhythms dominating contemporary country music these days. At age 52, and in his 20th year as a country star, Keith makes it work for him by simply applying
the updated rhythms to his typical macho style, filling the lyrics of Shut Up and Hold On with sly wit and a load of double entendres that will upset feminists, but entertain Keith's working-class fan base.
From there, the Oklahoman slips into his wheelhouse, mixing macho come-ons (Show Me What You're Workin' With) with philosophical slices of life (I'll Probably Be Out Fishin') and party tunes about escaping 9-to-5 drudgery (the title cut) -- all set to guitar-driven country rock.
Keith consistently hits the high marks on Drinks After Work despite releasing an album of new material annually since 2005. The reliability comes from Keith's knack for creating new material that fits his big-shouldered, swaggering persona, with help from a well-established crew of co-writers (Scotty Emerick, Bobbie Pinson and Rivers Rutherford).
From the easy acoustic swing of The Last Living Cowboy to the wistful idealism of Before We Knew They Were Good to the contemplative romance of Little Miss Tear Stain, these songs represent a veteran country star who remains at the top of his game. ****
DOWNLOAD THIS: I'll Probably Be Out Fishin'
-- Michael McCall, The Associated Press
Started With a Song (Warner)
ON his first major label release, Brett Kissel starts with a bunch of songs: he wrote or co-wrote every track on the album and co-produced it with CCMA award winner Bart McKay of Saskatoon (formerly of Portage la Prairie) and Nashville's Ted Hewitt (Rodney Atkins).
Started With a Song sees the 22-year-old Alberta native leaving behind his traditional roots (as displayed on his first two independent releases) for a much more contemporary sound. Musically, there are obvious nods to Luke Bryan and Keith Urban, but lyrically, it's all Kissel, with tunes about his grandparents (the ballad Together), family farms (Country in My Blood), country girls (there must be three or four of those) and backwoods parties (Raise Your Glass and the title track). Kissel gets autobiographical with nods to his youth, five per cent beer and Canadian girls on Canadian Kid.
Kissel doesn't reinvent the wheel but if it starts with a song he just might have what it takes to keep that wheel rollin'. ***
DOWNLOAD THIS: Together (Grandma & Grandpa's Song)
-- Bruce Leperre
Lang Lang & Simon Rattle
Prokofiev 3 Bartok 2 (Sony)
At the ripe old age of 30, with 24 combined years of preparation of the two works on this disc, superstar pianist Lang Lang has proclaimed himself ready for the "physically demanding repertoire" on this new album.
And is he ever! The Prokofiev Piano Concerto in C Major is riveting from Lang Lang's opening bars. He plays with an unbridled drive that keeps the listener on the edge of his or her seat.
Sir Simon Rattle leads the superb Berlin Philharmonic and the frequent woodwind solos are pristinely pure and lovely.
Lang Lang's tender moments melt in your mind; his magical runs performed with a gossamer touch. He is 100 per cent versatile as demonstrated by his many transitions from muscular to playful. He is truly a master of all moods. The finale moves from sensitive and reflective into a dance full of vibrant power.
Bartok's Concerto No. 2 is well-matched to the Prokofiev. Rattle and Lang Lang handle this intriguing work deftly, especially the mysterious chromatic passages. Rich and flowing, it has an other-worldly quality. The short final movement is all excitement and passion.
The disc comes with a bonus DVD with a run-through of the first movement of the Prokofiev and a behind-the-scenes short. *****
DOWNLOAD THIS: The Prokofiev Piano Concerto in C Major
-- Gwenda Nemerofsky
This week's singles
Continuing to tease her upcoming ARTpop album, Gaga's latest is an oddball intergalactic electro workout that sounds very much like something that would play immediately following Mike Myers' Dieter character proclaiming, "Now is the time on Sprockets when we dance!" It's not quite as immediate as previous ARTpop singles Applause or Do What U Want, and the line about Uranus will likely have you rolling your eyes, but it's still a decent, tongue-in-cheek dance track. ***
Included on his forthcoming We Are Friends Vol. 2 compilation, the curiously titled Suckfest9001 contains plenty of Deadmau5's trademark chunky electronics and a booming bassline. But then right in the middle, unexpectedly, there's a beautifully blissful '99-era trance breakdown. This is a long way from anything you'd ever describe as a "suckfest." ***1/2
Meant to Be (Sony)
Taken from their new greatest hits collection, 20 -- their third, by the way, since the death of Lisa (Left Eye) Lopes in 2002 -- and written by Ne-Yo, Meant to Be is uplifting, mid-tempo R&B in the tradition of Waterfalls and Diggin' On You. It's pleasant enough, but fairly forgettable. Something for the real diehards, then. ***
-- reviewed by Steve Adams