Monday, August 30, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 71 - Interpol

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

I find it interesting how different kinds of listening can affect one's reactions to the music. Music that works in some contexts completely fails in others. For example, I really enjoy listening to classical music. However, I rarely listen to it in the car - there's something about lengthy instrumental pieces that doesn't seem to work with driving. I can listen to this music in a concert hall, in the background while browsing the Internet, or even on my iPod while on a walk. But in the car, such music just doesn't have that much of an effect on me.

For Interpol, it was completely the opposite. Most of their music bored me if I was listening to it at home. But, in the car, their music was something else entirely. While driving, I really like to have a steady pulse, something with forward motion that reflects what I'm doing. The underlying rhythm to many of Interpol's songs is repetitive and simplistic - but while driving, it becomes my own personal metronome.

It's the equivalent of listening to a movie soundtrack on its own versus listening to it within the context of the music. Some music is elastic enough to stand on its own - other music works best when paired with images. Interpol worked best for me while driving my car, preferably around dusk. If there was a slight drizzle falling, all the better.

So Interpol basically functioned as mood music for me. I'm not certain how to react to this. On the one hand, I can't deny that there were times when the music was very effective and I found a lot to like. On the other hand, this makes the music not very versatile at all, and I'm not sure if these specific times when it worked are enough for me to say that I enjoyed their stuff.



MY LISTENING: I listened to Turn on the Bright Lights (2002) every day this week. I also listened to Antics (2004) three times and Our Love to Admire (2007) twice.

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: I remember a lot of people in college circa 2005 talking about Interpol, but the only song of theirs I had heard before this week was "Evil."

As I hinted at above, Interpol is very good at evoking a very specific kind of mood. Their debut album, Turn on the Bright Lights, is sort of the blueprint for their two subsequent efforts - all three albums are full of apocalyptic angst. The guitars lay down jangley riffs that are nonetheless ominous and imposing, to the point that I'm not sure if the band has a single song in a major key. Tracks like "Untitled," the first song on Bright Lights, summarize what is to follow - layers of gloomy guitar lines on top of a heavy rhythm section. Add dark and angsty lyrics and stir to taste. It helps that Paul Banks has a suitably dry, almost creepy voice that compliments the mood set by the guitars.

The rest of the record - and the other two - continues this funereal aesthetic. Many of the songs are quiet, reserved affairs, but I liked Interpol the most when they rocked out without loosing their gloominess. Both "Obstacle" and "Obstacle 2" from Bright Lights sound of desperation even over the loud, fast guitar, and "PDA" ends with a pretty bitching instrumental coda. "Say Hello to the Angels" is one of the band's few tracks that sounds almost upbeat, with the impressive trick of the bass and drums weaving their way through a bleak, consistent guitar riff.

Really, the bass and drums were the best part of Interpol for me. While the guitar lines tended to settle on the "play the same quarter notes over and over for the entire song" schtick, the rhythm section knows how to have a little more fun. Songs like "The Heinrich Maneuever" are almost funky, while "NYC" manages to be hauntingly beautiful even with a rocking drum line underlying the entire track.

Interpol is pretty much a one-trick pony for me. I suppose if I'm walking through some sort of urban area and I'm feeling lonely and it's raining and I'm hanging my head, they're the perfect band to listen to. But as I explored their music throughout the week, I began to realize that there's not a whole lot to explore - the band does a specific aesthetic very well, but that's all they've got.

As a result, by the end of the week I was getting tired of Interpol and ready to move on. It doesn't help that a lot of their guitar lines quickly became boring for me - the repetition of a single ominous note can be devastating in certain specific contexts, but this happens on nearly every song. Listen to "Leif Erickson" or "Slow Hands" or "No I in Threesome." These songs are from three different albums, but all of them get caught up in the repetitive guitar note trap, and the songs sound rhythmically constrained as a result (though drummer Greg Drudy does try his best to get out of this rut). This repetition, so effective at the beginning of the week, drove me nuts by the end.

Also, while the "fast-paced somber song" is a somewhat novel conceit (at least to me), the "slow-paced somber song" has been done to death. I didn't find nearly as much to like in Interpol's more reserved tracks - for whatever reason, their songs seem to carry more emotional weight when they're rocking out, not when they're taking it slow. The most reserved song on Bright Lights, "Hands Away," is a nice breather to break up the piece. But Antics gets downright dull, from the slow-building intro "Next Exit" to the plodding "A Time to Be So Small" at the end. Our Love to Admire, despite having some of the best fast-paced songs, also suffers from clunkers like "Rest My Chemistry" and the dreadfully boring "The Lighthouse." In general, Paul Banks' voice works best when its stiltedly barking over fast guitar lines with lots of reverb, not when attempting to emote over softer, slower music.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: Interpol's newest album, Interpol, hits stores next month. I'm not sorry I listened to them for a week, but I doubt I'll be going out of my way to give it a listen. Same thing with Banks' solo album Julian Plenti is...Skyscraper (2009). My Interpol curiosity has pretty much been satiated.


This is the song played over a black screen, because the official video freaks me out too much.


Maybe it's not the "best" song you haven't heard, but it's the rare Interpol song that actually builds toward something instead of just hitting the ground running and playing the same thing for the next four minutes.