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Owen Pallett: Five Essential Arcade Fire Songs

Owen Pallett (photo courtesy of Domino Records)

Owen Pallett (photo courtesy of Domino Records)


One of the most thrilling elements of Arcade Fire's complex, restless sound is the band's intricate string arrangements—most of which have been written or co-written by fellow Canadian and touring bandmate Owen Pallett.

The violinist, composer and vocalist is an indefatigable force as a rock, pop and classical composer and solo artist: Pallett's own recordings as Final Fantasy and under his own name have been critically acclaimed (he won the 2006 Polaris Prize for the delightfully named He Poos Clouds). He's been nominated with Arcade Fire for an Oscar for Best Original Score (for 2014's Her) and his many collaborations include work with Stars, the Last Shadow Puppets, John Darnielle, Finnish violinist Pekko Kuusisto, and Grizzly Bear. Pallett's most recent album is 2014's In Conflict, released via Domino Records, but he's been recording a new album.

His 2017 is already a whirlwind of activity: in addition to his own album, Pallett curated the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's New Creations Festivals, running through March 11 (his own composition, Songs from an Island, premieres on March 8). He has also contributed string arrangements to Sigur Rós for three upcoming concerts, April 13-15, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (other contributors include Dan Deacon, Anna Meredith and Nico Muhly).

Pallett's longtime work with Arcade Fire gives him an intimate perspective into the band's discography, so we were delighted (and amazed) when he agreed to write about his "Five Essential Arcade Fire Songs" for FUV Essentials:

Owen Pallett: Five Essential Arcade Fire Songs:

“Vampire/Forest Fire," Arcade Fire EP (2003)
The self-titled EP continues to be, after The Suburbs, my favourite Arcade Fire release. At this time, the band was firing in many directions, not sure where to take root in the spectrum between all their influences. And so, this EP is exploratory and the diversity is breathtaking. “No Cars Go” essentially became the rubric for their future sound, but one could hear six other possible bands in each of these songs. “Vampire/Forest Fire” is my favourite of these seven songs. Every line is weighted with emotion but still very funny. “You wanna be set apart?/burn all of your art/repair the wasteful part" and “Your father was a pervert/face-down in the dirt/he taught you how to hurt/my father was a miner who lived in the suburbs/let’s live in the suburbs” are two of my favourite lyrics in pop music.

“Haïti," Funeral (2004)
People love this band when they hit home runs, like “Power Out” or whatever, but I like the songs that are ragged blankets. The bass line is classic, the steel drums fuse perfectly with the groove. The vocals are recorded on a dictaphone — you can hear the whoosh of noise just before Régine [Chassagne]'s voice enters. The lights-switching open-and-closed bilingualism in this song is at its most poetic and effective: “rien n’arrête not esprits/guns can’t kill what soldiers can’t see." People called this band pretentious for this s**t but they just haven’t been in a bilingual environment, I don’t think. Along with “Tunnels” this is the best song on Funeral, though I carry big love for “In The Backseat” also.

“Surf City Eastern Bloc," B-side of "No Cars Go 7” (2007)
This is my favourite Neon Bible-era track: it sounds like a grunge band covering Pink Floyd, there’s a touch of “Comfortably Numb” in there, and I tried to channel Michael Kamen with the arrangement. I tend to get in trouble with certain bands I work with; I will ask them for more clarification on a lyric, and ask them genuinely, but the result has sometimes been a souring of the relationship between the artist and their song, or the relationship between myself and the artist. I don’t know if that happened with this song, but it may have, because I wasn’t clear if Win [Butler] was singing from the perspective of somebody who was living in the East and wanting to sneak into the West, or living in the West and wanting to sneak into the East. I don’t remember if we ever resolved the discussion, but the song didn’t make it on to the album and I was devastated about that fact, because it and “Broken Window” were my two favourites from those sessions.

“Empty Room,” The Suburbs (2010)
The Suburbs is the best Arcade Fire record, and one of the best records ever recorded, in my opinion. People love Funeral because of a place and a time, or because they like “Power Out” and “Rebellion," but The Suburbs is stylistically focused, lyrically focused, and an extremely complete record. Many casual fans, it seems, believe “Sprawl II” towers over the rest of this record, but I think it's because Blondie was cooler than Springsteen and Depeche Mode in 2010, at least, maybe? Where The Suburbs shines is in all the component tracks that sit together to make a larger statement—“No Celebration," “Deep Blue," “We Used To Wait," and “Modern Man." The title track is really an unbeatable Arcade Fire song, but I have to rep for “Empty Room." The string arrangement was created from a recording of a broken Mellotron that Régine made, we recorded it at half-speed, and sped it up. Régine’s voice is urgent and glorious.

“It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)," Reflektor (2013)
Reflektor, to my ears, is overlong and overmixed. It’s a pity because at least four of the songs on it are top-tier Arcade Fire songs and none more than “It’s Never Over." The groove is hard, the mood is urgent, and the way Win and Régine’s voices intertwine like vines is breathtaking. I wanted so badly for this song to be a single that I spent hours trying to edit it down on my computer, but never succeeded.

Five honourable mentions:
“I’m Sleeping In A Submarine," “Tunnels," “The Suburbs," “Deep Blue," “Here Comes The Night Time (pt. 1)."

- Owen Pallett
March 2017

Read all of FUV's Five Essential Albums and Songs.