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Interpol — Turn on the Bright Lights

Blogcritics’ own Kenan Hebert is right that Interpol‘s first impressive full-length, Turn on the Bright Lights, is the album of the year thus far. He and other critics are also right that the frequent comparisons between the vocal styles of Interpol frontman, Paul Banks, and Joy Division frontman, Ian Curtis, are obviously unavoidable. But the comparison of Interpol to Joy Division as bands to which seemingly every critic has alluded runs thin for two significant reasons, the second of which Hebert touched upon in his well-written and insightful review of album-of-the-year candidate, Turn on the Bright Lights.

First, to be honest, the critics are right in that Banks’ voice at times bears a remarkable resemblance to that of Joy Division’s Curtis. Let’s get picky, though. Banks only sounds like Curtis when he bellows: compare, for example, Banks’ haunting “She broke away/She broke awaaaay” to Curtis yelling “Dance, dance, dance to the radio” in Transmission. When Banks croons, however, he and Curtis sound nothing alike, and the recurrent comparisons fall short. As Kenan pointed out the lyrical difference between the two frontmen — most notably, Banks’ more optimistic lyrics — the same discrepancy is embodied in the vocal style of each. While Curtis virtually never comes across sounding warm and engaging, Banks does so with great frequency. Banks voice is simply more high-spirited and human — as illustrations, listen to Interpol’s first single, NYC (download here), Leif Erikson, and Say Hello to the Angels.

Second, instrumentally, Interpol and Joy Division have very little in common. To begin with, the percussion style of Joy Division’s Stephen Morris is precise, mechanical, and oftentimes fierce (see especially Heart and Soul), while Sam Fogarino’s style is noticeably more fluid and, well, more alive. Next, the nearly uniformly distant production of Joy Division’s work coupled with the metallic and disquieted voice (and, of course, lyrics) of frontman Ian Curtis worked to create a singluar coldness previously unmatched in thirty years of rock history — this, perhaps the most ironic twist given Curtis’ undeniably expressive and emotive lyrics. With the rare exceptions of Love Will Tear Us Apart and Atmosphere, lush and organic are adjectives that cannot be attributed to Joy Division’s songs (consider especially She’s Lost Control, Passover, and Something Must Break). Joy Division, though labeled as the first post-punk band (read Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s excellent, but brief, essay tracing the history of post-punk), nevertheless embodied many of the essential qualities of early punk rock. In contrast, Interpol’s music is gorgeously lush and dense with layers of guitars, effects, and occasional keyboards, with only scant traces of punk rock (this stark contrast is especially evident in Hands Away, Untitled, and The New).

In that sense, I would submit that Turn on the Bright Lights is part traditional indie rock (Merge, Matador, Touch and Go, etc.), part late-80s college rock/neo-psychedelia, and part NYC 2002 — that is, the retro-rock fervor (whether it be the VU/Lou-Reed-ness of the Strokes or the equally, if not more, fascinating “post-punk” sounds of Radio 4, the Ex Models, or Kill Rock Stars’ The Seconds) that has gripped the recent indie/punk scene in the greater New York City area, but especially in Brooklyn. While the first element is pretty straightforward (after all, they are on Matador Records), the second element might be the one in most need of clarification. More precisely, I think Turn on the Bright Lights manifests noticeable traces of mid- to late-80s British rock, in the vein of the Church (though Aussie), Echo and the Bunnymen, the Psychedelic Furs, or even The Mission (U.K.). I find this to be especially so with respect to the way the production (and effects) on the lead guitar distances it from the rest of the swirling, dense instrumentation. Consider the latter half of PDA (download MP3 here and a video here), the most rocking song on the album: the protracted bridge that unfolds three-and-a-half minutes into the song could easily have appeared on one of the tracks off The Church’s Starfish album. A similar sound is achieved in the heavily reverbed guitar in Obstacle 2 and Hands Away, as well as in the coupling of the wicked gothic melody with the reverbed guitar solo at the climax of Roland. As for what I’ve called the NYC 2002 sound, both the general attitude and style of Interpol can safely categroize the band in the same rock movement as the aforementioned Ex Models, Seconds, and Strokes (among many others) — the champions of the new indie rock sound.

All of this commotion about comparisons to Joy Division is simply to say that critics who are shallow enough to disparage Interpol as a Joy Division clone are misinformed and their accusations are unwarranted. While I would wholeheartedly welcome a Joy Division clone (considering they are one of my favorite rock bands of all-time), Interpol is not that band. Though traces of times past are evident in their work, Interpol quite simply offers some of the most innovative and compelling music of today.

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  • http://www.theporkstore.org/blog Russell Fischer

    The 80’s guitar-pop comparison is certainly accurate, and I hear a lot more Television than Joy Division in Interpol. But it’s not nearly as fashionable to talk about Television. Not that it matters – those comparisons are a sales pitch and a crutch. The second time I’d heard the disc all of that stuff was out the window.

  • http://nomatterwhatyouheard.blogspot.com Sabo

    I’d like to believe that talking about Television was not as fashionable, but given the constant (misguided?) comparisons of the Strokes guitar style to Television, I might disagree. I would agree, however, that any and all comparisons fly out the window once you listen to an album a few times.

    I’m glad that someone sees the 80s guitar pop influence though.