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Pop

Arcade Fire

Reflektor

[Merge]

2½ stars (Out of four)

The first thing you notice when Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor” comes blasting out of your speakers is how glorious it sounds. Grandiose, epic in intent, bathed in reverb, gorgeously mixed and smartly arranged, this beast of an album – twin discs clocking in at more than 75 minutes – comes on with raging ambition. It sounds massive.

Much of the album, co-produced by LCD Sound System’s James Murphy, is danceable, a multilayered rhythmic orgy of tribal drums and percussion that owes a clear debt of gratitude to David Byrne and Brian Eno’s groundbreaking “My Life in the Bush Of Ghosts.”

One’s first inclination is to fall instantly in love with this incredibly well put-together, decidedly attractive music.

Sadly, this is a love that grows hollow rather quickly, the first blush of romance giving way to the realization that, beneath all of that beauty, not a whole lot in the way of substance resides.

“Reflektor” is said to be an album whose lyrics deal with the tumultuous relationship between Eurydice and Orpheus in Greek mythology, and there are moments when the interplay between vocalist/guitarist Win Butler and his wife, vocalist Regine Chassagne, is redolent of the aching to-and-fro carried out by the lovers in this myth. But the problem with Arcade Fire – a problem now running four albums deep – is that the band favors abstraction to the point of distraction. So couplets might emerge from the lyrical miasma to grab the listener’s attention, but really, they could be about anything. Or nothing.

Similarly, the music, despite its gorgeous bombast, lacks compositional clarity. Chord progressions rarely resolve, which would be fine if this wasn’t the case on nearly every song.

Again, this would be far less of a problem if “Reflektor” didn’t boast a majority of tracks near the 6-minute (or longer) mark. These “jams” are only interesting rhythmically – there is not enough musical information provided by the songwriting to justify such length.

This might not be a deal-breaker for fans, though. Perhaps “Reflektor” is meant to be listened to in a manner as abstract as it was seemingly assembled. If we view it simply as dance music, there’s little to criticize. From the opening moments of the introductory title tune, the music moves and breathes, largely on the strength of the drums and percussion and the sonic nuances that surround the breathy intonations of Butler and Chassagne. “We Exist” tips its hat to disco and ’80s alternative and comes across like a less grating Thompson Twins. “You Already Know” incorporates soul motifs and moves with the buoyancy of classic “girl group” pop, and sounds a bit like something Robert Smith might have written for the Cure’s “Wish” album. “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and its partner, “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus),” provide the thematic heart of the album and its most interesting expanse of music.

Interestingly, “Reflektor” is an album that sounds best either cranked to the maximum volume while you’re hosting a dance party, or simply as background for other activities. But when you really tear away the beautifully tailored clothing, wipe away the makeup and look “Reflektor” dead in the eye, you might feel that you’re staring into a vacuum.

– Jeff Miers

Jazz

Anthony Strong

Stepping Out

[Naive]

3½ stars

There is no doubt about it anymore. Anyone who has been waiting for the flood tide of popular and first-rate male jazz singers to equal – and perhaps even exceed – that of the mammoth wave of female jazz singers that followed the Diana Krall/Karrin Allyson generation should know that it has happened.

And then some.

Hot on the heels of the superb new Blue Note disc by Gregory Porter is this, from a singer who is from another stream entirely – the popular one that began with Harry Connick Jr. and includes arena favorite Michael Buble and charismatic Brit pianist/singer Jamie Cullum.

The brilliant new addition to that bunch is Anthony Strong. The British singer’s 29th birthday was Tuesday, and he’s almost certain to be a smash if he can ever stop performing in London and Paris, leap the pond and start touring over here. He isn’t just a wailing singer; he’s a pianist who can cook at tempos that would scorch the fingers of lesser pianists. In fact, he began as a sideman and session player with the likes of Michael Bolton and Charlotte Church.

As if that weren’t enough, he’s also a songwriter of gymnastic energy and wicked wit. It isn’t just the Great American Songbook beauties on which he burns and sparkles – the likes of “Witchcraft,” “Too Darn Hot,” “Luck Be a Lady” and “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” – it’s his own tunes that sit on top of them and sometimes practically blow the house down. “Change My Ways” is witty and sung at such split-tongue tempo that he’s a genuine wonderment.

Obviously, it remains to be seen by Americans if he’s got the performance charisma and crowd control abilities of a Cullum or a Buble. But for a mere disc introduction, this is formidable.

– Jeff Simon

Pop

Paul Simon

Over the Bridge of Time: A Paul Simon Retrospective (1964-2011)

[Sony Legacy]

3½ stars

Something historic this way comes.

Along with all the ordained Christmas rain of box sets and career collections for the seasonal gift rush still to come, one already here is one of the more appealing beauties: the mammoth 15-disc “Complete Paul Simon Album Collection” on Legacy – the whole works under his own name.

That doesn’t include all his music with Art Garfunkel, but it’s still something that would be an all-day festival for the most dedicated and resolute Simon fanatics.

Those who don’t quite have the wherewithal to pay the full freight for All the Paul Simon They’ll Ever Need – or who don’t always want to make a habit of binge listening – could certainly have a great time with this all-eras greatest hits package.

There’s a nice chunk of Simon and Garfunkel on it, which makes it the first compilation to include music from all Paul Simon eras, with Garfunkel and alone afterward. (I could have done without “America,” found here with “The Sound of Silence,” “The Boxer,” “Cecilia” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”)

The songs by Simon alone include many that are among the great singer/songwriter triumphs of his era, even if this collection’s choice from “Graceland” of only “ You Can Call Me Al” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” is more than a bit of a puzzle.

The producer is SONY/Legacy workhorse Steve Berkowitz who, amid all the Miles Davis, Johnny Cash and Tony Bennett compilations that were his responsibility, seems to have been very much of his own mind here, with the result that not all of this seems quite highest-grade Simon.

Too bad. The work that is from all Paul Simon eras (he counts three himself) deserved a first-rate one-disc anthology.

– J.S.