Review Summary: Succeeds at doing something Interpol no longer can: trying something different.
Ever since the release of their sophomore album Antics
in 2004, Interpol
have come under a lot of fire for turning into a “sell out” band, dumbing down their sound in a way that appeals to a more mainstream cookie-cutter audience, and whether you’re a fan of the band or not, it’s hard to dispute the validity of that criticism.
Turn on the Bright Lights
was an indie band’s best case scenario. As simple as it was complex, each track built off of the last in a way that made the whole album a delight to listen to from start to finish, and while Interpol has never been known for technically complex guitar riffs or riveting drum solos, the consistency and flow found here were nothing short of impressive for a debut release. Best of all, there was some real variety here. Faster-paced, upfront indie rock numbers like 'Obstacle 1' and the quick beat driven 'PDA' are complimented nicely by slower-burners, like the eerie-sounding 'Untitled', enchanting 'NYC' and the mostly instrumental, beautifully climaxing 'Hands Away'. Many of the songs had a dark, ominous subtlety to them that, when layered together with Paul Banks’ smooth, almost monotonous yet expressive vocals and clean guitar rhythms, created a beautiful, atmospheric and often anthemic sound that was as poppy as it was gothic and melancholy. The point I am trying to make is this: there was a time when Interpol were not afraid to take risks, vary their sound and write complex, layered and well structured pieces of music.
Since then, things have changed. The ominously dark, eerie and gothic themes from Turn on the Bright Lights
have been swapped out for a much simpler, poppier, by-the-numbers, radio single-friendly sound that will only appeal to the casual listener. For everyone else who had vested some interest in the band, we are left severely disappointed. The only real consistency that can be found on Antics
or 2007’s Our Love to Admire
is in the form of repetition. I have listened to each of these albums numerous times now, and there are still several songs that I wouldn’t ever be able to distinguish from others, and that’s because there is very little to actually distinguish between them. There are still glimmers of hope to be found; Antics’
'Next Exit' is a deceivingly great opener, 'Evil' and 'Narc' are somewhat reminiscent of songs found on Turn on the Bright Lights
, and, in my opinion, 'Take You on a Cruise' is one of Interpol’s best songs to date. On Our Love to Admire
, 'Pioneer to the Falls' sounds like nothing else Interpol has released so far, both creepy and apocalyptic and downright scary. It is once again a deceptively great start to an otherwise mediocre album of rehashed ‘singles’, save for the wonderfully minimalistic closer 'The Lighthouse' (and I’d also like to make a note here that if you have a chance to get the bonus track 'Mind Over Time' to do so, as it is definitely one of the better songs to be found here as well) If all these criticisms sound harsh, the reason is because Interpol proved very early on in their career that they are talented musicians capable of writing consistently quality music. I do not believe it was a fluke that Turn on the Bright Lights
was as well-crafted a debut as it was, and the few instances of excellence that Interpol have displayed since then prove that they are still capable of writing music worth listening to.
And that brings us up to speed on my opinion of Paul Banks thus far, and on to the main topic of my first review: Paul Banks’ new solo album, under the pseudonym Julian Plenti. Why Banks decided it was time to take off on his own musical venture, I do not know. Perhaps he didn’t feel like releasing the same album again for a third time with the band, or maybe he’s looking for some inspiration on which direction to move forward from here. Or maybe he’s just bored. Whatever the reason, Julian Plenti is… Skyscraper
is a surprisingly good listen.
Sticking to tradition, the album opener 'Only If You Run' is a somewhat deceptive introduction to what lies ahead. It’s a very mellow, relatively relaxing track driven by Banks’ smooth vocals and some quirky sounding layered electric guitars which, though very different sounding instrumentally from his work with Interpol, still has a similar enough vibe and structure to it that it could be mistaken as such. 'Fun That We Have' quickly fixes this problem, however, and gives the first real taste of the kind of experimentation that Paul Banks- sorry, Julian Plenti will be playing with on this album. The song starts out normal enough, with a very simple quirky guitar rhythm leading up to the chorus of “With all the fun that we have, we have come far” before taking a surprising turn to the weird with a breakdown of sorts into the bridge, which has a very confused and disoriented, almost psychedelic sound to it, and then eventually normalizing again to the same quirky guitar rhythm for the chorus. The only comparison I can think to accurately describe this sound is that of a song "breaking" itself and then putting itself back together again for a while, only to break once more, and repeat. If 'Fun That We Have' gave the first taste of Banks’ experimentation on this album, 'Skyscraper' is the epitome of that experimenting. It’s a chilling, spooky carnival-esque instrumental that slowly builds onto a haunting acoustic guitar with violins, piano and eventually a steady, deep drumbeat followed by a surprisingly calm and quiet repetition of the line “Shake me, shake me skyscraper”
by Banks, before slowing down and fading out into nothing. Not only is it the most experimental and unique track on the album, but also the definite standout that will stay with you the longest, and the more times you listen to it.
Although so far I’ve had mostly positive things to say about this album, there are some major faults to be found as well. There is such a fine divide between the harder indie rock songs like the ones mentioned above, and the much softer, almost acoustic ones found later on in the album, such as 'Girl on the Sporting News', 'No Chance Survival' and 'On the Esplanade', that one can’t help but get the feeling that this release is more a collection of random, unconnected ideas being materialized from the back of Banks’ mind than an actual cohesive record with any kind of flow or pattern throughout, and this can make it hard to appreciate to the fullest extent. There is also some repetition to be found here, 'On the Esplanade' borrows heavily from Skyscraper, all the acoustic songs bare a little too much resemblance to each other, and 'Fly as You Might' sounds too much like a rehash of sections of the prior heavier songs on the album, particularly the quirky guitar rhythm from 'Fun That We Have' and the violins layered on top of high-pitched guitars from 'No Chance Survival' making it quite a dud to close on. Then there is 'H', the final two and a half minute instrumental that, while admittedly a terrifically dark and gloomy song, feels so very out of place on this album and as a closer that it leaves the listener with a rather sour feeling that there is very little coherence or direction to be found in the overall picture at all.
The rest of the songs that I haven’t gone into any detail on yet are all simply enjoyable, but not particularly outstanding. The remaining heavier songs on the album are 'Games for Days', which satisfies as a solid hard rock number with a pretty catchy and danceable chorus, and 'Unwind', a personal favorite if only for the upbeat trumpets which compliment Banks’ baritone vocals and guitar very well and add something to the album we have not yet seen from either Julian Plenti or Interpol before. Then there are the softer songs, starting with 'Madrid Song', a very peaceful piano and violin driven number which serves as a nice calming interlude midway through the album. While it's actually quite a beautiful two minutes of music, it is questionable why it was necessary to throw in here when the next song up, 'No Chance Survival', is equally as slow and calming, causing 'Madrid Song' to end up feeling like filler on an already relatively short album. 'Girl on the Sporting News' is a very good, beautifully sad acoustic song with some questionable lyrics, but nevertheless is a very enjoyable listen. Lastly there is 'On the Esplanade' which as I previously stated sounds a little too similar to Skyscraper, with the same haunting sounding acoustic guitar and eerie high-pitched violins. It's not a bad listen, and the latter half of the song is actually quite beautiful, but the repetitious nature of the first half is just a little off-putting, unfortunately.
If there was one last thing I would have to criticize about this album though, it would be the organization of the songs within it. Near the end of the album there are simply too many slower songs in a row, and the album turns into a bit of a snoozer, which could have entirely been avoided by moving around some of the heavier songs from the first half of the album. It may sound like a rather silly complaint, but by switching around some of the songs within your playlist, and removing some of the filler, you’ll notice a world of difference in terms of consistency and overall entertainment value.
Still, for the most part this album works, and I found it much easier and more enjoyable to make it all the way through than the last two efforts from Interpol. While it’s far from perfect, Julian Plenti Is… Skyscraper
is a solid attempt on Banks’ part to try something different for a change, and break the mold he has trapped himself within in recent years, and I truly hope he makes the same attempt when it comes time for Interpol to try to regain some of their long lost credibility. With a little work on finding a way to experiment with new sounds, while still maintaining a sense of flow and consistency throughout the record, they may just be able to do it. Unfortunately, I have my doubts.