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Interpol - Turn on the Bright Lights

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Artist: Interpol

Album: Turn on the Bright Lights

Label: Matador

Review date: Sep. 12, 2002

Confidence Among the Flaws

A deafening buzz has surrounded a whole bunch of bands coming from New York recently, including the NYU quartet Interpol. These four have been honing their sound for the past couple of years, laboring over a Peel-approved self-released EP as well as a Chemikal Underground-backed mini in Scotland. Now, catching a ride on the ‘new’ New York wave comes Interpol’s first long player, Turn on the Bright Lights. Where other bands have worked hard to sustain garage thrash or taut disco rhythms, the major force behind Interpol is their dedication to atmosphere, both the concept and the devastating Joy Division song of the same name. Sure enough, the band shares more than a few similarities to bands like the aforementioned Joy Division, as well as other Brit-punk bands like the Wake, Section 25 or Wire, in addition to a heavy dose of dream pop, a la folks like Ride and Slowdive.

The band is obvious in their references. I mean, one listen to a track like “PDA”, with its snapping rhythm, dueling jangling guitars, and vocals that bear more than a passing resemblance to Ian Curtis will have you wondering if this is New York circa now or Manchester, U.K. twenty-five years ago. Not that it’s a bad thing at all, necessarily, as the first half of the record speeds by into infinity, walking a finely balanced line between taut rockers and gloomy dread. It’s a neat trick, too, especially on a song like “NYC”, which adheres to the gentle strum and slow beats laid down behind the wafting vocals, only to turn it all up halfway through the track, the guitars upping the reverb to the point of drowning everything else out, while Paul Banks’ voice yelps in the background.

Sure enough, “NYC” is one of the most powerful tracks on this disc. But then this quest for the upper reaches of space is thrown into contrast by a track like “Say Hello to the Angels” which is all Wire post-Pink Flag guitar interplay and rollicking rhythms, trading off the jangle now and then for a breakneck chorus, all before breaking down into a section of sharp beats, snapping basslines, and contrapuntally picked guitars. The first two tracks on the disc are outstanding as well. “Untitled” leads things off and heads straight for the upper echelons of atmospherics, matching the heavy reverb of the simplistic and repetitive guitar lines with a driving mid-tempo rhythm that works well, even though it apes the great shoegazers of the early nineties. “Obstacle 1” works a similar vein, placing the strum of one guitar against the quick chord repetitions of another while the bass and drums scurry to make a thumping background, while the vocals come close to collapse.

Things, however, begin to get problematic over the second half of the record. Side one, Interpol shines through their influences, taking bits and pieces and updating them for the modern day, tapping into some unseen zeitgeist of rhythms and strum that sounds deliberate, but still enticing. “Hands Away”, however, is a bit of directionless filler. It strives for the same type of atmosphere that the earlier tracks gained effortlessly, but just ends up meandering a little too much for its three minute run-time. “Obstacle 2” is another water-treader as well, lacking any of the intangible little qualities that make the first half of the album great. During “Stella was a diver and she was always down”, the band sounds less referential and more formulaic. Not that any of these are particularly bad songs, but they lack the drive and ambition that the band channeled elsewhere on the record.

“Roland” breaks out of the three-song slump with a pungent little rocker. Once again, vocally, the band sounds on the edge of collapse while the guitars fight against each other, dueling with chiming fretwork and carefully balanced reverb. This is all before the rhythm section leads them into a glorious climax of sputtering guitars and driving rhythms. The album leaves two more tracks, neither of which manage to attain the heights the band scaled or even aspired to with the rest of the record, as both “The New” and “Leif Erikson” are almost indistinguishable.

Pound for pound, the first five songs on the disc match up with pretty much any great rock record I’ve heard this year. Interpol bounces from hazy gloom to uptempo desperation without so much as even batting an eye, and indeed it’s a beautiful thing. Last week, a writer for the New York Times mused rather cluelessly that the backlash against New York starts here, with Interpol and their deliberate referencing which seems to lack any semblance of fun. Right, but when you’re channeling Joy Division, Wire, or any other post-punk band as a major influence, how much fun can you expect the music to be, considering that those bands were a reflection of hellishly depressing lives in post-industrial towns on the brink? If anything, Interpol does reference a bit heavily, but there are far more positives than negatives. They eschew the darkness and obvious depression, seeking to create moods within the tracks. When it works, like on “NYC” or “Roland” it’s a dizzying and beautiful thing that leaves you starving for more. And even when it doesn’t work, it doesn’t fail – it’s just that at times the band seems unable to live up to their own standards and expectations. Even with the bits and pieces of this disc that seem to wallow unconvincingly, this is still a remarkable debut, soured a bit only by the fact that two of the best songs here have already seen release on their EP. It leaves me wondering what the band will do now for an encore. But that’s neither here nor there.

So is the New York backlash really starting now? Hey, if you honestly believe that the Strokes are the best band in New York (I’ll pause for the laughter to die down) then maybe you should look elsewhere. I heard that the Vines record is on sale at the Virgin Megastore.

By Michael Crumsho

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