The crusty music scribes who reviewed Interpol’s 2002 debut mainly had one point to make: Gee, ain’t it cool that the kids of today finally have a Joy Division and/or Echo and the Bunnymen and/or Chameleons of their own? That, of course, didn’t stop the New York quartet’s Turn on the Bright Lights from racking up miles of hyperbolic column inches. Good for them—every pasty-faced college kid with a guitar and a Factory fixation deserves a hot ’n’ bothered write-up in the pages of Rolling Stone, dontcha think? But reading back over those notices now is pretty revealing.
That congratulatory tone would seem downright offensive if Interpol hadn’t worked—and worked, and worked—so hard to earn it. Consider the band’s name, which resonates with frozen-checkpoint glamour in the same way that Warsaw, an early Joy Division moniker, did way back in the late ’70s. Consider, too, the group’s much-ballyhooed fashion sense, which would best be characterized as skinny-tie-chic if it weren’t for bassist Carlos D’s unfortunate flirtation with Third Reich–style regalia—a high-fashion don’t that wasn’t even cool back when Sid Vicious trotted it out.
Still, the biggest point in Interpol’s disfavor is its music. Don’t get me wrong: Like everyone else who counts albums by Joy Division and Echo among his all-time faves, I thought Bright Lights was a hoot, a goofy road trip down Memory Lane with one great song (“PDA”) and a bunch of also-rans that at least sounded halfway decent rumbling away as background noise at, say, your best friend’s 40th birthday party.
Of course, the same could be said about the Grease soundtrack, and I’d argue that that particular analogy gets the relationship between Interpol’s forebears and the band itself just about exactly right. Indeed, if and when Greasemeister Robert Stigwood ever decides to come out of retirement to produce a postpunk film (and no, Times Square doesn’t count), he’ll almost certainly cast the men of Interpol in his movie, and perhaps even use ’em as his soundtrack band. After all, these guys are the Sha Na Na of today.
Harsh? Maybe. But given the way the usual suspects have fawned all over Antics, Interpol’s sophomore effort, someone’s gotta do the dirty work. With the possible exception of two tracks, Antics is, in a word, godawful—so bad, in fact, that the current critical mantra about how the disc showcases Interpol’s melodic side can only be described as Orwellian.
Take, for instance, “Next Exit,” the album’s organ-fueled opener. Lyrically, the track aims to be this well-traveled band’s fight song: “We ain’t going to the town, we’re going to the city,” sings frontman Paul Banks in his relentlessly monochromatic warble. “Gonna trek this shit around/And make this place a heart/To be a part of.” A worthy sentiment, that, but the tune’s plodding cadence and three-note “melody” conjure up only boring old touring-band fatigue and hipster ennui. All that’s missing here is a Jackson Browne–style tip of the hat to the roadies.
Despite D’s supple, fret-board-running bass line, “Evil” is similarly stuck in a midtempo rut—one that Banks only digs deeper with more words about the trials and tribulations of, well, being Paul Banks. “It took a lifespan, with no cellmate,” he intones wearily with nary a wink nor a nod over his band’s shoplifted Sturm und Drone. “Narc,” by, er, contrast, finds guitarist Daniel Kessler practicing his scales over a slightly discofied shuffle and a by-the-numbers shoegazing chorus, and “Take You on a Cruise” opts for the kind of echo-laden soundscape that U2 abandoned decades ago. Banks adds insult to inanity by weighing in with lyrics that one suspects are meant as koans but turn out to be mere non sequiturs. “Time is like a broken watch,” he offers portentously. “And make money like Fred Astaire.”
Got that? No? Well, perhaps the song’s next line will make more sense: “I see that you’ve come to resist me,” Banks intones—to which the only proper response is: Can you blame us?
In addition to Banks’, um, antics, each of these tracks suffers as well from the band’s ill-advised commitment to lock-step rhythms. As on its debut, Interpol here fares best when it ups the BPM. Though “Slow Hands,” Antics’ first single, ain’t great by any stretch of the imagination, it does get by on the strength of Kessler’s hyperactive riff-mongering and drummer Samuel Fogarino’s relatively crazy rhythms. Indeed, the track—one of the album’s two real keepers—is a rock-disco anthem that could give the criminally neglected Electric 6 a run for its money.
The other trump card here is “Length of Love,” a throbfest that, from its title on down, is nasty through and through. Even Banks rises to the challenge, so to speak, managing to thread one of his inscrutable “poetic” phrases—“complex salacious removal”—through the song’s hedonistic murk with, for once, considerable style and grace.
But that kind of acumen is all too rare on Antics, a disc that’d be one dud of a career killer if it weren’t for those pesky fanboys who keep writing it up so damn favorably. To be sure, Interpol has a knack for giving certain people—you know very well who you are—exactly what they want. But revivalism based on cartoonishly received notions of the past doesn’t generally bode well for any band’s future. As the saying goes, you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all the time—and that goes double for Sha Na Na.
Prosaics, on the other hand, have both an expert knowledge of musical history and sense enough not to try to duplicate it. Even better, the Brooklyn-based group’s debut EP, Aghast Agape, is the finest slice of ramshackle racket I’ve heard since the Libertines dropped their first album a couple of years back.
That’s not to say the group shares the ’Tines’ ’77 obsession or anything. No, like Interpol, Prosaics sound as if their collective record collection has a special section reserved just for groups from Manchester. Unlike their celebrated Manhattanite neighbor, however, the band brings more to the table than just a halfassed knack for the sincerest form of flattery: These kids obviously own a Ride record or two, as well.
Seriously, though, check out the disc’s shimmery set-opener, “Teeth,” on which Prosaics guitarist/frontdude Andy Comer threads a dark and lovely melody through the frenetic throb served up by bassist Josh Zucker and drummer William Kuehn. The thing just crackles with excitement and positively drips guitar effects—think of it as something from Nowhere with slightly darker lyrics. (“We preach wine/And drink water,” goes one choice couplet.)
Elsewhere, “Failure” finds the band caroming gamely from reckless abandon to mechanical precision in the span of just two minutes and change, and “Crawling” provides a Friday-night fight song for Williamsburg clubhoppers. And with its catchy lamentation about “the way of all flesh,” the crusty “Tenants” sounds like a choice pick for the battered and bruised morning after: “So much the worse for the wear,” Comer announces over a twitchy cymbal pattern and what could be one or 1,000 superdistorted guitars.
Best of all, though, is “Now the Shadow of the Column.” Under the direction of, say, Interpol, a song by that title would almost certainly be a plodding brooder, a go-nowhere ode to, say, the Durutti Column, a Factory reject if ever there was one. With Prosaics at the helm, the tune turns out to be a sonic spaz attack: Comer’s ringing harmonics vie for attention with Zucker’s rubbery tones as the track opens, but it’s Kuehn’s huge-sounding wallop that prods this ditty to perfection.
In fact, if the fuzz were cut back to pre–My Bloody Valentine levels, “Column” might be mistaken for the even-better B-side of a genuine postpunk-era keeper. It probably won’t be by the standards of Prosaics’ target audience, but that’s OK: Comer & Co., at least, aren’t trying to fool anybody.
Interpol performs at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 9, at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. For more information, call (202) 393-0930.CP