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The Unforgettable Fire 

With Funeral, the Arcade Fire has become indie-rock favorites, but that doesn't mean they have to be taken so seriously.

The Arcade Fire has officially been gushed over. The New York Times dubbed its debut album, Funeral (Merge), "one of the year's best indie-rock albums," and the acclaim the album garnered led to a feature on NPR's Morning Edition. At Pitchfork.com, David Moore reviewed the album, writing, "Funeral evokes sickness and death, but also understanding and renewal; childlike mystification, but also the impending coldness of maturity. The recurring motif of a non-specific Œneighborhood' suggests the supportive bonds of family and community, but most of its lyrical imagery is overpoweringly desolate."

Writer and singer Win Butler admits, "I'm not that plugged into what's going on, but everyone tells me that (critics love the record), so I believe it." He took time off to vacation in California during Christmas time, but he's still conducting interviews, despite a bad cold. "I don't think it's that healthy to read about yourself all the time. Whenever I watch TV, it seems like all of culture these days is about looking in a mirror, and that's probably an extreme form, eavesdropping on people talking about you."

The CD that earned the Montreal-based band such accolades was recorded at a time when the band members were going through a number of deaths in the families. Butler and his brother Will -- also in the band -- lost their grandfather, pedal steel pioneer Alvino Rey. Rey's death also touched band member Régine Chassagne, Win Butler's wife, who also lost her grandmother. Around the same time, an aunt of guitarist/keyboardist Richard Parry died.

As much as death was a presence in their lives, "it wasn't ingrained in the writing process," Butler says. In fact, much of the writing was done before the deaths. Still, the nearness of death has led writers like Moore to see it as the album's theme, while other critics have inquired about Rey and the circumstances surrounding Funeral. "I put it in the liner notes, so it's not like I didn't expect people to pick up on it as important," Butler says. "I don't have anyone to blame but myself.

"I think the album title leads people in a certain direction in the way they receive the record. In my experience, funerals aren't a big, heavy --," he starts before reconsidering the thought.

"I understand that that's the way it was going to be received and perceived, but that isn't really where we're coming from. I don't think we're a sad bastard kind of band."

Because of the band's perceived subject matter, jokes are taken the wrong way. On the Arcade Fire's Web site, the band's "bio" is an old photo of an Asian family, prompting one online critic to wax philosophically about its appropriateness, but the photo's neither a metaphor nor an obscuring device. His brother Will does much of the Web site work and posted it as a joke. He also wrote, "Never forget your heritage" in one news item as a gag, but it wasn't long before Win had to answer questions about what that meant.

Part of what draws listeners to the Arcade Fire is the band's musical ambition. Subject matter aside, the songs are richly layered with traditional guitar-bass-drums accompanied by accordions, xylophones, harps and strings in songs that often stretch beyond the three-or-four minute mark that's traditional in rock 'n' roll. They're often ornate and lovely on record, paced by chopping guitar strokes; when performed live, it's more direct, physical and joyous. "I hear a lot of live recordings of us and we sound pretty different from show to show," Butler says.

Butler's vocals hint at that physicality. During "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)," the instruments periodically obscure his voice, though in yelps that recall David Byrne at times, phrases emerge clearly like revelations. "Then I'll build a tunnel / from my window to yours" sounds beautifully covert and significant as a result.

That effect isn't entirely by design. "We mixed the records ourselves, and I don't know that we did the best job we could have done," he says. "You lose your perspective after a certain point." All the overdubs, Butler concedes, also affected the clarity of the vocals.

"We go a bit overboard in the layering and the overall sounds, so it's very hard to have 12 instruments going and not have the vocals be a bit buried," he says. "I guess Phil Spector does it, but that's a different era."

At some level, Butler asserts, it is an aesthetic decision. "Certain songs sound great with the vocals way up front, and other ones, they're more atmospheric and you read the lyrics and you know what it's about. To an extent, it's conscious. "I grew up listening to a lot of music that you had to strain to hear the lyrics; it's a generational thing. My mom hates that you can't hear the words because she grew up on Bob Dylan, and you can hear every syllable of every song. I grew up on R.E.M."

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