"Neon Bible," Arcade Fire
This is a big album. Following a red hot debut, "Funeral," that fixated on weighty topics like love, death and family, Arcade Fire have widened their scope sonically and thematically, adding vast waves of organ and blues and folk rock touches to an already orchestral sound and broadening their neighborhood dramas to include the whole of contemporary American society. After the first album was so widely praised, you knew there was going to be at least some reluctance to roll out the praise the second time around, but don't believe the naysayers: "Neon Bible" is fantastic. For all the attention paid to this band by the hipsterati, Arcade Fire make irony-free and nakedly emotional music. Approach "Neon Bible" with a sense of cool, and it'll leave you cold, but if you come to the album without any bias against its populist Springsteenisms (especially evident on "Keep the Car Running" and "Intervention") or grandly melancholy language ("Left in the morning/ while you were fast asleep/ to an ocean of violence/ and a world of empty streets") you're in for an invigorating, absorbing experience. The homespun bombast of the band's roots rock meets '80s college rock sound invests the spiritual angst of the album's lyrics with a sense of heroic defiance, as the cathedral organ and the massed backing vocals suggest that the strength to resist "the noises on TV," "the fast" and "the free" comes from a reliance on faith and friends. "Neon Bible" breaks no new ground musically, but passion and hooks make any talk of musical stasis sound like a bunch of blather. This album is probably too desperate and apocalyptic to get on the radio, but give it time and you'll be rewarded with passionate, epic rock music of a rare quality.
Favorite track: "Keep the Car Running" (and see our Daily Download selection, "Black Mirror," below)
"The Weirdness," the Stooges
During their brief career, the Stooges served up vicious, savage, drug-fueled, needles-in-the-red rock 'n' roll. Back recording together for the first time since 1973, Iggy Pop, joined by brothers Ron and Scott Asheton on guitar and drums and with former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt replacing the deceased Dave Alexander, the band now sounds like the hardest thing they reach for these days is a bottle of Geritol. "The Weirdness" is a disappointingly tame record and one that might lead uninformed listeners to wonder what the fuss was about in the first place. Iggy's lyrics are typically ratty fun, as he croons about consumerism ("ATM") and his undiminished prurience ("Trollin'"), but his voice has lost the desperate, violent edge that gave the old Stooges records so much of their visceral charge. Likewise, Ron Asheton's guitars are crisply recorded and played -- the antithesis of the murky sludge that thrilled on 1970's "Fun House." I don't want to fall for the nostalgia trap of saying the old stuff was always better than the new stuff, but the Stooges' genius was in evoking a certain kind of primal rock 'n' roll response, not in being particularly clever or well played. There was a time when Iggy would have been believable singing "I go on instinct, moral codes are done," but now's not it. "The Weirdness" is full of formally solid rock music, with passable riffs and solos, a singer with a distinct personality -- and on tracks like "I'm Fried," old friend Steve Mackay blows some welcome free-jazz sax anarchy -- but the Stooges used to be a punch in the nose to the entire idea of a serviceable rock band. "The Weirdness" may be impressively snotty for a bunch of late-middle-aged men, but the band that made "Fun House" or "Raw Power" would have chewed it up and spit it out.
Favorite track: "I'm Fried"
"My Name Is Buddy," Ry Cooder
Given that Ry Cooder's new release is a historical concept album about working-class solidarity that features Hank Williams, a pig named J. Edgar and a hoboing cat named Buddy as characters, you'd be forgiven for thinking the renowned roots-music maven has gone off his rocker. Fortunately the music on "My Name Is Buddy" is strong enough to overcome the strangeness of the album's conceit. It's nice to hear Cooder back playing gospel, blues and folk after his successful forays into African, Cuban and Chicano music; he's in a class almost completely his own when it comes to playing traditional American music with a balance of historical fidelity and modern vitality. The old-timey styles and lefty politics might induce some eye rolling in certain quarters, and three or four songs could have been shaved with no real loss, but if you can divorce yourself from the slight didacticism of the album's NPR-readiness, you're left with an hour of folk music that rocks.
Favorite track: "Sundown Town"
-- David Marchese