Christmas songs are as big a part of the season as crowded shopping malls and spiked eggnog, but there are only so many times you can hear “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls” without wanting to wretch just a little. Here are some suggestions for compiling a Yuletide playlist that perhaps isn’t quite so musty. Much of the music can be purchased or ordered locally at Guestroom Records, Size Records and the like.
Record Store Day (RSD) has become an audiophile’s Christmas since its inception in 2008, celebrating independently owned record stores with exclusive titles and limited-edition releases from everyone from The Beatles to Arcade Fire.
And not just in indie. Released this week, Coldplay’s “Mylo Xyloto” (also see Florence + The Machine, Lady Gaga) is the group’s biggest, brightest, largest-swelling album yet, just as optimistic in tone as its lyrics are complimentary and superficial. Meanwhile, once the biggest, loudest, hardest chest-beaters of the indie-rock scene (just watch them playing “Wake Up” in what appears to be a closet in 2003), Arcade Fire actually crossed over by virtue of their sweaty performances, winning a Grammy for “The Suburbs.” The band now plays amphitheatres and 5,000+ venues exclusively.
And here we have a record from M83 – Anthony Gonzalez being the key conspirator – the act’s sixth full-length, that outdoes the Brits for lyrical meaning and the quasi-Canucks for glittery, bubbly synth-rock. Not that Arcade Fire have exclusively aimed for that type of sound, but if “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” and “Half Light II (No Celebration)” from “The Suburbs” are any indication, then they could well be heading in that direction with LP No. 4.
Much like fellow ’80s synth enthusiasts Bon Iver and Washed Out, “Hurry Up We're Dreaming” deals in easily accessible abstracts, allowing Gonzalez the luxury of expressing oft-expressed sentiments using his own diction. It’s not exactly difficult to tell what he means when the lines “Rules of conformity, heavy clouds of reason / They’re hiding the beauty of your free distortions,” show up in a song called “New Map,” which is most definitely the point. No need to extrapolate on what are basically inherent truths to your listeners.
The most shocking thing for me here was that the album – a staggering, 22-song, two-disc set just shy of 80 minutes – managed to avoid seeming overlong. I suspect Gonzalez’s well-listened ear and the range in instrumentation and musicians (38 are credited, plus two full choruses) are the reason why, as he uses the enormity of resources to borrow already well-established sounds from track to track.
“Reunion,” for instance, undercuts a Cut Copy jungle scene with a choppy guitar riff you’d expect from The Edge. Almost comically huge Phil Collins drum fills hook the listener into “Claudia Lewis” (they don’t sound comical here, however — nothing does, not even that blaring, incredible “Midnight City” sax solo) and the album is just stuffed full of catchy electronic melodies. Can’t ever go wrong with those.
He also does well to vary his and others vocals here, whether that’s singing (or doing spoken-work) in French, changing the timbre or pitch, even mid-song.
It’s a dizzying epic of an disc, but its attitude and key theme are linked, running strong throughout the 22 tracks and even the artwork and title. “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” is about accepting the invitation to explore a new world, and Gonzalez communicates that by filling a huge, sci-fi cinema soundtrack with plenty of voices (most notably Nika Danilova’s, of Zola Jesus, whose full-throated voice absolutely stuns on “Intro”) all singing about hope and adventure. It’s gorgeous and foreign (a few tracks are in French), but universally accessible. Everybody dreams, after all.
“Hurry Up”’s only serious flaw is that the majority of the record seems more like a soundtrack that an actual film. There’s only a sense of adventure communicated amid all the bigness here, not an actual adventure. It’s as if Arcade Fire’s had struck all the stuff about Alexander and the neighbors from “Funeral.” I realize the word “dreaming” is in the title, but I’ve always been mistrustful of dreamers.
This is the album Gonzalez was born to record, however. The cheeky, nu-hipster “Breakfast Club” look and feel of “Saturdays = Youth” is a thing of the past, replaced by the sky-flying sci-fi of “Before the Dawn Heals Us,” soaring through a miles-wide expanse. All that’s left is to sit back and let it guide you through its new world.