Review: Interpol – El Pintor

For the first time in Interpol’s career, we can honestly say that their newest album is better than their previous work.  While we argued last week that Interpol’s “decline” was not nearly as sharp as some may contend, the band still had issues matching the success of their previous works.  The band reached its nadir with Interpol, an album that while striving to push their music into new directions suffered from a clear lack of inspiration, with many songs seemingly the aural manifestation of creative gears spinning without any tangible result.  After some time off, the band has regrouped and seemingly found its mojo once again, as for the first time since Antics Interpol seems to be having at least a bit of fun making music again.

The title El Pintor goes beyond being simply an example of clever wordplay by being an anagram of the band’s name and previous album, but also serves as a signal of the creative reshuffling that went on behind the scenes.  Even dipping into Spanish was a nice touch, considering how the previous album ended with “The Undoing” and its verse in Spanish, providing an additional connective tissue with this creative reinvention.  There were some interesting superficial touches (the cover art adds a bit of blue to the traditional red-and-black Interpol color scheme, the band published a lyric booklet for the first time with the album) that mirrored some of the internal structural changes the band underwent in recording the album.  With Carlos D’s departure once Interpol was completed, the band decided that instead of searching for a new bassist that they’d power through as a three-piece, with Paul Banks laying down the bass in the studio (for the record, the band hired a touring bassist, so we won’t be seeing Paul trying to figure out how to play old songs on the bass and sing at the same time).  Considering the importance of bass to the Interpol sound, fans were rightly concerned; the good news is that Banks proves himself a more than capable replacement on El Pintor.  There aren’t any show-stopping riffs like in “Obstacle 1” or “The New”, but Banks often provides a great groove and a quality counterpoint to the melody in songs like “Anywhere” and “Tidal Wave”.

Traditionally, Interpol albums have begun with a stately, deliberate opener, and for the first 50 seconds, “All The Rage Back Home” seems to follow that pattern, before it pulls a left turn and abruptly shifts into a full-blown rocker.  I initially expressed skepticism when the song was first released, mainly for a lead-guitar line that seemed out of place, but the song has grown on me since then and I’ve fallen under its spell and now eagerly anticipate the hell that will break loose when its performed live.  Instead, I should have paid attention to more promising aspects of the song, like Sam Fogarino’s subtle touches, like his hits on the crown of the ride cymbal (noticeable around the 3 minute mark) or his work on the toms to help provide some added power to the final chorus.  Fogarino has long been the secret weapon in Interpol’s arsenal, and for the first time in years the band has figured out how to take advantage of his gifts.  Whereas the group had trouble with avoiding turning their start-stop rhythmic songs into slogs, Fogarino’s nifty hi-hat work on “My Blue Supreme” helps push the song forward and keep the listener’s attention, and his part in “Ancient Ways” is some of his liveliest playing in years.

There just seems to be a spark that runs through El Pintor, which helps give it a consistency that the band has lacked since Antics.  The album may not have peaks as high as those on Our Love To Admire, but it doesn’t have any out-and-out duds either.  El Pintor is a record that’s also worth exploring in a variety of settings–I’ve picked up several different nuances listening to the album on disc, on the computer, and through headphones, and in each instance the album as a whole has sounded excellent (which is reassuring, considering that the initial stream that I heard compressed the music so much that it was difficult to determine if dynamic contrast existed at all on the record).  Some critics have claimed that El Pintor is an attempt to recapture Interpol’s earlier sound, but I would argue that it’s more of a reinterpretation of their more recent direction.  There’s nothing that immediately recalls Turn on the Bright Lights or Antics directly, but this album seems to be a natural progression from those records than Our Love To Admire and Interpol were in hindsight.  There is the movement towards incorporating more strings and keyboards (courtesy of former Secret Machines member Brandon Curtis) that marked their recent output, though their not at the forefront of their songs; Daniel Kessler’s guitar once again is prominently featured, but he’s armed with better riffs this time and a careful sense of restraint.  This helps the songs breathe, and not make it seem like everything has to live or die based purely on the quality of Kessler’s guitar parts.  Once again, just as in their best work, the unit is functioning more like a “band” once again with each member fulfilling their role.

The main takeaway for fans is that the band isn’t rehashing tired old ideas, and most importantly, El Pintor signals for the first time in years that there is still a bright future ahead for Interpol.

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