Review: Viet Cong – Viet Cong

Viet Cong’s self-title debut is one of those records that I find easier to admire than to truly enjoy.  Though Viet Cong is enjoying a serious amount of critical buzz (its Metacritic rating currently sits at 82 with only a typical half-hearted shrug of a review from Rolling Stone dragging down its grade), I find it highly unlikely that the band’s noisy take on early-80’s post-punk will break through to a mass audience in any big way.  At times Viet Cong is a challenging and confrontational album, with the band seemingly taking a defiant approach by avoiding by thismuch a more approachable melody whenever possible.  It’s an album that defies easy conventions, but one that is rewarding with repeated listens; the problem is gaining the will to get to that point.

The album is heavily influenced by post-punk like early Joy Division or Wire with its insistent drumming, melodic bass counterpoint, and off-kilter guitars, but Viet Cong filters these elements through a sheen of Sonic Youth-like noise and the lo-fi experimentation of their disciples.  Whereas a lot of those classic records would employ a common verse-chorus structure, most of the songs on Viet Cong veer through multiple unrelated ideas, with songs stopping on a dime and making a sudden left turn into previously unforeseen musical territory.  For example, a song like “March of Progress” begins with an ambient sonic experiment like you would find on a No Age record, abruptly shifts into an eastern-tinged drone, then concludes by suddenly morphing into a dance-y 4/4 rave-up; none of this makes sense on paper, and the unfamiliar listener will assume that he/she just listened to three separate songs, but Viet Cong finds a connective tissue between the differing styles.

The band’s relentless desire to experiment doesn’t always pay off, but when it does, it does so in a big way.  The first half of Viet Cong can be a struggle to listen to, with slogs like “Bunker Buster” and “Pointless Experience” sounding like homework for a lesson on post-punk: OK, here’s the guitar accenting the off-beats, there’s the drums chugging along, and oh yeah here’s some distant, ethereal haunting vocals overlooking the entire enterprise.  Sure, there are individual moments within each song that are worth noting, but they are enveloped by such dour surroundings that they can be difficult to appreciate.  If you thought Interpol was too brooding for your tastes, then you’re in trouble.

However, the second half of Viet Cong is a monster that should have you overlooking any potential misgivings from the first half.  “Continental Shelf” manages to twist a beach-influenced Surfer Bloodtype riff into something more ominous and foreboding, and it pays off in spades. Bassist Matt Flegel’s vocals alternate between a desperate wail in the mold of a Paul Banks to a more restrained version of Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, Moonface, etc.) in his best performance on the album that shows the band’s exciting potential.  “Silhouettes” is a more frenetic number that amps up the paranoia and makes excellent use of the band’s heavy dose of reverb, the perfect soundtrack for an apocalyptic disco party.

Viet Cong concludes with the eleven-minute epic “Death” and features a stellar drumming performance by Mike Wallace, who expertly deploys an attacking snare riff to build on the unstable mood established by “Silhouettes” before the entire song collapses in a noise-freakout.  That is, the song seemingly collapses–after a false ending, the band seamlessly transitions back into a more furious version of the original song, constantly increasing the speed and tension.  It’s a performance that will leave you figuratively gasping for air, though I imagine in concert the reaction may be more literal.

If Viet Cong can build on the strengths shown on the second half of their debut, then they have a very bright future ahead of them.  I am unsure whether Viet Cong will appeal to anyone outside of post-punk enthusiasts, but for those who appreciate the genre they should enjoy their original spin on its conventions.  At the very least, we should all be able to enjoy the pure unfiltered fury of a song like “Death”.


Review: The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

The Decemberists have returned from the longest absence of their career with an album that is the perfect encapsulation of their evolution to this point.  What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World splits the difference of the sprawling, proggy The Hazards of Love and the return-to-our-roots folk-rock of The King Is Dead, but does not necessarily feel like a compromise between the two versions of the band.  The combination results in an album that is filled with wonderful, catchy moments that are meticulously crafted and brilliantly arranged, making full use of the band’s instrumental prowess in creating gorgeous, digestible songs.  In other words, no overlong multi-part epics, but no stripped-down basics either.

Many critics have emphasized the lyrics in their reviews, which is an understandable approach considering the band’s hyper-literate reputation were what brought fans on board in the first place.  On What a Terrible World, the focus is less on 18th century peasant life or swashbuckling sailors, trading in allegory and metaphor for more direct commentary on personal topics like love and growing up, a noticeable shift in the band’s lyrical technique.  This is why when Colin Meloy seemingly makes a song into meta-commentary as he does with the opener “The Singer Addresses His Audience”, the critics focus on lines about selling out for Axe commercials, instead of remarking on the fantastic build into the song’s climax, anchored by a thundering performance by John Moen.  However, it is the band’s less-recognized musical prowess that carries the album and deserves more attention, with each member making vital contributions on a multitude of instruments.

Though the band doesn’t indulge in individual songs that are the kind of multi-genre exercises that characterized albums like The Crane Wife, they do stretch out over the course of the album.  Sometimes the explorations misfire, as in the accordion swamp-stomp of “Anti-Summersong” that unfortunately brings back nightmares of that godawful Kongos song from last summer.*  Thankfully, those moments are rare, and the listener can enjoy instead when The Decemberists recall the gothic Americana of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Howl era with songs like “Carolina Low”, or revel in the bright horns of the rousing “Cavalry Captain” that are reminiscent of Guster.  Though these deviations are welcome, it’s when the band goes back to their wheelhouse of rousing folk-rock that the band truly shines, as they do on their first single–“Make You Better” may not only be the album’s highlight, but once the song hits that climax after the guitar solo, it may possibly the best moment of their career.

What a Terrible World, What A Beautiful World is a bit too long at fifty-three minutes, sagging at around the three-quarters mark, though considering their previous absence it is understandable that the band felt that they had to leave in as much material as possible.  Despite the lull, the album still finishes with a flourish due to the touching “12/17/12” and the uplifting “A Beginning Song”, leaving the listener far from disappointed after that slight setback.  What a Terrible World represents some of the best of The Decemberist’s late-era work–they have combined the instrumental adventurousness of The Hazards of Love while learning to rein in its potential excesses by keeping a song-based focus as they did on The King Is Dead.  It may not seem like a risky move, but it was an incredibly tricky maneuver and The Decemberists pulled it off beautifully.

*It’s a damn shame that this is my first instinct to reference, considering I grew up in an area where zydeco was a significant part of the culture.

Review: TV on the Radio – Seeds

It’s almost absurd that I have waited this long to formally write up a review of Seeds considering how often I have listened to it since it was released last month.  This can be explained by the tension between how difficult it has been for me to attempt to intellectualize my love this album and how easy it has been just to cue it up on my iPod or keep it playing in my car stereo.  So while I struggle where to objectively rank it within the TV on the Radio discography, I will at least declare how goddamn fun and beautiful and brilliant this album is.

TV on the Radio kick off Seeds seemingly mid-song with “Quartz”, a seemingly sly acknowledgement that while this has been the longest gap between records in their career so far, they have still been busy in the meantime, upheaval within the group and all (and taking it a step further from their similar gambit from Nine Types of Light, which began with “Second Song”).  From there, the band slides easily into a joyous and ebullient first half, with the one-two punch of the sweet “Careful You” and the jubilant “Could You”.  The latter is possibly the most irrepressible song in the band’s deep catalog, with its catchy melody line and brash backing horns (as well as an early lead guitar line that mimics those horns beautifully in a nifty bit of foreshadowing).  “Happy Idiot” follows, and though not the highlight of the album, it’s easy to see why it was chosen for the lead single–it has a great hook, nice groove, and a driving beat that fits comfortably within a radio playlist but is still able to distinguish itself with some subtly intriguing touches (such as the “hey-hey-hey”-like sound effects leading into the chorus).  Looking at the song from the context of the album as a whole, it also serves as a fulcrum between the different halves of the record, as one can sense some of the tinges of sadness that dominate the second side.

Seeds lulls a bit in the middle with the trio of “Test Pilot”, “Love Stained”, and “Ride”, though this is intentional.  “Test Pilot” is a touching ballad that rests in a downbeat groove, with “Love Stained” tweaks the formula by riding an illusory double-time hi-hat/half-beat groove combo, creating an undercurrent of tension and serves as one of several instances of a push-and-pull dynamic that is found throughout the record.  “Ride” is seemingly set up as the centerpiece of the album, with its two distinct halves–the first part is a slow gorgeous instrumental ballad that recalls a major chord version of Nine Inch Nails’s “The Frail” mixed with the lushness of the band’s own “Family Tree”, before switching gears into a second part that’s a bouncy and buoyant pop rock song, driven by an insistent Krautrock-like motorik drumbeat that brings to mind early-era Secret Machines that sets up the rest of the album.

With their buzzsaw guitars, “Winter” and “Lazerray” find TV on the Radio rocking out harder than ever.  The former uses a half-time beat in a similar fashion to “Love Stained”, creating the illusion as if the band is fighting through an invisible force attempting to drag them down, while the latter finds the band just flat-out letting loose in the most punk-rock fashion they’ve done since “Wolf Like Me”.  The album closes out with the bittersweet “Trouble” and the hopeful title track, and it’s then that the album’s true theme pushes through, that of rebirth in the face of loss.  After the death of bassist Gerard Smith, it wasn’t set in stone that the band would return, but it’s clear that TV on the Radio are working through the loss of a beloved friend.  The overall result is a record that hits all possible emotions, but in a way that is consistently engaging and repeatable.

As for the original conundrum, I’m still not sure it matches the creative brilliance of their debut desperate youth, blood thirsty babes or Dear Science, it’s still more consistent than Return to Cookie Mountain and Nine Types of Light, though there is no single song that is the equal of “Wolf Like Me” or “Killer Crane”.  I find it surprising that while the reviews of the album are still quite good, critics are ranking Seeds significantly below their previous work.  Despite this, my prediction is that as people play the album more and more, its charms will become more apparent and its reputation will grow.

Deerhoof, Live at the Doug Fir

It is difficult to capture what makes Deerhoof such a unique and amazing live experience with mere words.  They combine the explosive anarchy of punk with the precise timing and sophisticated musicality of jazz, topping off the combination with the innocently sweet vocals of Satomi Matsuzaki, and it can be a lot to take in at once for the novice.  The effect is a spectacle that is unmatched in music today, and the crowd at the Doug Fir on Thursday night had a blast seeing it live at the best venue in Portland.

A view of the band in the intimate confines of the Doug Fir

A view of the band in the intimate confines of the Doug Fir

The band kicked off their set with a run of songs from their latest album, La Isla Bonita; I often have trouble distinguishing a good portion of their catalog, but was able to pick out the early single “Paradise Girls” and the fiery “Exit Only”, which received a hearty applause.  Though the record was only released a few weeks ago, it seemed that most people in the audience were already familiar with its songs–either that, or they did a really good job of faking like they knew what was going on.  Deerhoof kept the energy up throughout their performance, with Greg Saunier’s insane drumming a definite highlight.  Saunier is able to come up with a variety of sounds and textures using a fairly rudimentary kit, and no matter what insanity was going on around him melodically, the audience could tether themselves to his intricate rhythms to keep bouncing around in perfect time.

Greg Saunier bringing a halt to the set to deliver a trademark rambling talk to the audience

Greg Saunier bringing a halt to the set to deliver a trademark rambling talk to the audience

Deerhoof has a fairly extensive (and consistent) discography at this point in their career, and their setlist reflected that–though La Isla Bonita was represented with numerous selections, the band also selected songs from several of their other releases from this past decade.  A boisterous version of “The Perfect Me” from Friend Opportunity was a personal highlight, which despite the lack of keyboards lost none of its charm; another great moment was when Greg and Satomi traded instruments for a song, though it was preceded by Satomi passing around handmade Deerhoof stickers from a devoted fan while using her newly-acquired drumsticks as chopsticks.  Guitarists John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez traded angular and complex guitar parts all night, and Satomi was a constant delight whether she was playing her bass or dancing around with a jam block; her moves varied widely from specific hand gestures that were reminiscent of hula in their apparent hidden meaning to recreating ninja moves with various bouncing kicks.

The show’s encore included a song featuring opener Busdriver, whose incredible delivery and innovative beats made for a compelling opening set in and of itself, but his lightning-quick rapping over a Deerhoof track probably inspired more than a few fans to wonder what a full-length collaboration would sound like.  The finale was the pleasantly ridiculous “Come See the Duck”, and that pretty much summed up the whole night in a nutshell.  Deerhoof is not for everyone, but for those that are willing to step outside of their normal comfort zone, they are as good a live experience as you can find.

Review: Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2

“Run the Jewels” is the answer, your question is “What’s Poppin’?”

Since the announcement in late October that they had leaked the much-anticipated sequel to their thrilling debut album, Run The Jewels has been the talk of the music world.  And it’s with good reason: Run The Jewels 2 is even better than the original collaboration between El-P and Killer Mike.  Their self-titled debut was among the best-reviewed albums of last year, and found a spot on most year-end lists, including our own.  The sequel does an even better job of mining and improving upon the best trends in hip-hop from the past twenty years, and finds the connection between the duo stronger than ever.

So while the quoted lyric above is certainly not the most acerbic or clever line on the record, the closing line of opener “Jeopardy” does sum up RTJ’s place in music right now.  If you need a better sampler of the album, you should listen to the banging “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry”, which will fully abuse your car stereo’s subwoofers with its pulsing bass.  The two MC’s trade verses fast and furious, picking up their speed and intensity with each round as the music grows more chaotic around them.  Another highlight is “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck) which builds a bouncy, stuttering beat off a guest appearance from Zach de la Rocha, recalling the era when turntablism reigned.

Run The Jewels 2 is a treasure-trove of brilliant beats and production from El-P, switching up styles and moods on the fly that accommodates the desire for variety while never sacrificing flow.  Grimy, serious material like “Angel Duster” and “Blockbuster Night Part 1” fits in easily with more fun tracks like “All Due Respect”, which takes the fun elements of rap-rock without the negative connotations that term has taken in more recent years, thanks to some excellent drumming from Travis Barker.  It’s a lean and efficient album too, clocking in at less than forty minutes, so it never wears out its welcome–but it’s likely that you’ll be putting the whole thing on repeat.

Note: there seems to be a difference between the free download version and the physical copy you can buy, with the former including an extra verse from Gangsta Boo to provide the female counter to the duo’s claims on “Love Again (Akinyele Back)” that’s missing from the purchased disc.

Review: Tweedy – Sukierae

Sukierae is quite the family affair, and while some may snicker and say that it represents the apotheosis of “dad rock”, it’s a pleasant but affecting listen.  Much of the debut album from “Tweedy” will remind fans of what they love about dad Jeff’s day job with Wilco, but the more personal nature of the material mirrors the stripped-down approach of the record and necessitates a separation from the main act.  It’s an intimate affair, but a welcome one.

Opener “Please Don’t Let Me Be Understood” recalls Telephono-era Spoon with its distorted repetitive riff, but that’s a bit of a misdirection, as Sukierae mainly consists of ballads or otherwise pleasant diversions.  The album is for the most part delicate and subdued, often just Jeff on vocals and guitar with son Spencer accompanying on drums, with the latter careful not to overwhelm the fragile nature of each song.  Acoustic guitar is the dominant sound, with electric guitar leads dancing in and out to provide emphasis and contrast as necessary, with the occasional sprinkle of piano providing hints of color.  Spencer’s drumming ventures occasionally into intriguing new territories for Jeff, as in the King of Limbs-like stuttering beat of “Diamond Light Pt. 1” (which ends with a bit that recalls an earlier period of Radiohead, specifically “The Gloaming”), but for the most part sticks to keeping it in the pocket and augmenting the music with subtle fills on a spare kit.  It’s all a bit “low key”, if you could excuse the pun (note: you are under no obligation to do so).

At seventy-one minutes long, some fans may wonder whether it was necessary for the album to be split into two discs, as Jeff insisted.  While the two discs themselves are not necessarily distinct from one another (though the second disc is a bit more subdued), but each disc does have its own shape; for instance, “I’ll Sing It” and “I’ll Never Know” each bring a sense of finality and work as closers.  One disc doesn’t stand out from the other, but splitting the album into two does benefit the listener by breaking it up into more manageable sizes.  Some may argue that there’s a 12-14 song, 50 minute album hidden in the two discs, but there are not any songs that are asking to be culled from the tracklist.  They may not all be standouts, but there are several quality songs and gorgeous moments spread throughout.

Review: Aphex Twin – Syro

It was worth the wait.  It had been over a decade since we last had a proper Aphex Twin release, but Richard James has rewarded us with the challenging but beautiful Syro.  It’s not a revolutionary new work, but more of a distillation of the best parts of Drukqs with flashes of the brilliance of his 90’s output that put him at the vanguard of the electronic music movement.

The liner notes that inventively catalogs the use of every bit of musical equipment on SYRO

The liner notes that inventively catalogs the use of every bit of musical equipment on SYRO

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of electronica, and not particularly an expert of the genre (though I’m sure I upset at least a few people by using the catch-all term “electronica).  I haven’t been a regular purchaser of electronic music since the Big Beat era; any forays into the area are usually based on the insistent recommendations of friends (Darkside) or from research into musicians with a penchant for experimentation (Tim Hecker).  The rise of EDM in the past few years has only been a source of confusion and frustration, as the entire movement seems to be merely a repackaging of sounds and ideas that Richard James perfected back in the 90’s.  Mix in the abrasiveness and breakbeats of “Come to Daddy” with the acid-jazz grooviness and distorted finish of “Windowlicker”, and you have 95% of the formula that’s racking up the big bucks at these raves.  Just toss in a trick as old as music itself (“the drop” of the bass has always been a trick in a band’s arsenal), apply it in a haphazard fashion, ignore any semblance of rhythm or conception of songcraft in general, and you’ve got yourself EDM.

The album artwork is a list of all the expenses that went into the production of the record

The album artwork is a list of all the expenses that went into the production of the record

But Richard James sets himself apart from his successors, because it’s clear to even the lay individual that has a much better understanding of the fundamentals of music itself.  Even when he’s trafficking in beats that are lined-up with pinpoint precision based on computer formulas and arranged in odd meters, you can still feel a beat.  It may be odd, it may be unfamiliar, but it’s not arrhythmic–there’s a method to the madness.  James also has an excellent grasp of songwriting, providing careful shape to each song and the album as a whole.  The album draws you in with a subtle and trippy beginning, before pumping up the energy with a frenetic middle, before drawing back down and ending with a beautiful, Satie-inspired epilogue (meaning a delicate, spare piano with the barest hints of chord progression and melody, but still capable of evoking immense beauty).

The entire list of expenses, which can be read after unfolding the album cover.

The entire list of expenses, which can be read after unfolding the album cover.

Whether you’re listening to Syro as background music or with intense concentration through headphones, it’s clearly apparent that each sound was created and applied with the greatest of care and precision.  Fans will recall many similar tones from the Richard D. James Album, but he also tosses in several new variations as well, with each perfectly calibrated to elicit a particular emotion.  It’s difficult to go into more detail, not simply because it’s practically impossible to refer to specific tracks without employing a significant amount of cutting and pasting (James really emphasizes the pointlessness in some respects of distinguishing certain tracks by employing random letters and signifying particular “mixes” for each song, as if we have access to alternative mixes and they’re not just holed up on his hard drive somewhere, though noting the BPM for each track is a nice touch), but also because of the sheer amount of notes and styles in each particular track.  Hence, the resort to generalities.

It should be clear then this is an electronic album that casual fans will appreciate.  And since the more specialized press seems to be in agreement that his is a great record, I can take comfort in the fact that my inexperienced perspective has at least some solid footing.  It won’t be the Kind of Blue of the genre, but definitely a worthy addition to Aphex Twin’s illustrious discography.

Interpol, Live at the Crystal Ballroom

Interpol hit the Crystal Ballroom last night feeling a bit rejuvenated.  Their latest album, El Pintor, was released last week to the best reviews that the band had received in a while (including our own rave, published on Tuesday), and they seemed eager to build on that momentum.  As the band geared up for a full-fledged fall tour in support of the album, a lot of the press from the early shows emphasized the prevalence of the band’s early material in their sets.  While many of the highlights of their beloved first two albums were performed last night, Interpol didn’t shy away from performing new material, sprinkling the set with several cuts from El Pintor.

Black and White helps hide some of the flaws of my photography

Black and White helps hide some of the flaws of my photography

Whereas before it often seemed that the band struggled to maintain an effortless cool in their performance–I have a distinct memory of their last Crystal Ballroom performance, which came during the Antics tour, where Paul would smoke and rest his still-burning cigarette on his guitar’s headstock while he played–last night the band was focused and intent on nailing their performance.  Daniel Kessler has always been a sparkplug and in his own little world with his various nifty dance-steps (though the Crystal’s stage put a damper on some of that footwork), but last night Sam Fogarino was locked in with a blistering performance, displaying a great ability to shake off the crowd’s enthusiastic-but-off-beat clapping.  Most significantly, Paul Banks was in a cheerful mood and seemed especially engaged, and it came through with one of the best performances of his that I’ve seen.

A glimpse of the stage show

A glimpse of the stage show

The stage show was fairly simple, alternating between green- and red-focused light setups and a simple backdrop, alternately displaying the hands of the El Pintor cover with the occasional abstract visualization.  The focuse was on the songs, and though the curse of the poor acoustics of the Crystal reared its head once again (Sam’s hi-hat and other auxiliary percussion were poorly mic’d, the keyboards were always buried, and Paul’s guitar spent most of the night turned down too low), it was still a riveting set.  After opening with “My Blue Supreme” from the new album, Interpol revved the crowd up with the one-two Antics combo “Evil” and “C’Mere”, with the latter surprisingly getting the bigger roar from the Portland crowd.  From then on it was an even mix between new material and early stuff, with the crowd going nuts for Turn on the Bright Lights‘s “Say Hello to the Angels”.  Our Love to Admire and Interpol only got one track apiece, with “The Lighthouse” being the surprise pick for the former and “Lights” leading off the encore for the latter.  It seems clear that the band is distancing itself from those albums (with Dan and Sam remarking how they barely remember how to play the songs from OLTA in a recent interview), but the band is not heading to the nostalgia circuit any time soon.  The new material was met with a rapturous response for the most part, an amazing feat considering the album was released just last week.

Interpol in a familiar red setting

Interpol in a familiar red setting

The future is bright once again for Interpol, and hopefully the band continues to make the most of its “comeback”.

Review: Death From Above 1979 – The Physical World

If we are to take Death From Above 1979’s claims at face value and believe that they are indeed machines, then fans should be glad to hear that they are at least constructed from materials incapable of rust.  You would be hard-pressed to believe that it’s been a decade since You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, because DFA1979’s long-awaited follow-up doesn’t miss a beat.  The Physical World does everything you would ask following a landmark debut–it maintains the spirit and essence of what made the original so brilliant (perhaps with an edge or two smoothed over), while at the same time attempting new tricks that keep the new music sounding like a mere rehash of previous ideas.  In other words, all previous devotees should be fully satisfied, and perhaps the band will pick up some new fans as well.

Death From Above 1979 proves that their formula of stripped-down rock reliant on bass and drums (but not drum and bass) still works, filling the album with plenty of riffs that are both fast and furious.  “Right On, Frankenstein!” and “Gemini” would fit right in with some of the more blistering tracks from their debut, like “Little Girl” or “Romantic Rights”.  “Gemini” has several catchy parts that will certainly stick in the minds of the listener (the pre-chorus of “she cries on her birthday” and the chorus of “24/7–still believes in heaven” will definitely be parts that the audience will be shouting along with at their concerts) and “Right On, Frankenstein!”  features a terrific outro, with the band stopping on a dime before slipping into a furiously-picked rapid-fire 32nd-note bass riff that ends with a bang.

The band also stretches out a bit with great success, dipping into sludge-rock territory with the “Virgins” and getting damn near close to writing a ballad with “White Is Red”.  The latter features an inventive bass part that utilizes a gorgeous unique tone that shows that simply because the band uses a limited set of instruments, it doesn’t mean that their sonic palette is in any way constricted.  The lyrics are also some of their best work to date; DFA1979 always were able to come up with an incisive line or individual memorable lyrics, but the heartbreaking story of a spurned lover and an unplanned teenage pregnancy in “White Is Red” shows that the duo can craft a complete song and are capable of invoking previously unknown subtle emotions in the listener.  It also ends up being the perfect setup to the lead single “Trainwreck 1979”, which sounds as terrific and energetic on the album as it does when it’s livening up rock radio’s otherwise generally moribund playlist.  (It also may bear an interesting connection to the previous track, as the track begins with the details of the protagonist’s birth.)

The album ends with the epic title track, a song that shifts from a goofy 8-bit melody into a frenetic punk rocker before ending on a throwback 80’s metal coda, which fades seamlessly into a classical piano outro that mirrors the previous melody, processed through a filter that evokes the soundtrack of a classic horror film from the Silent Era.  With the coda, Jesse Keeler comes as close to a bass “solo” as you’re likely to hear from the duo, and Sebastien Grainger shows off some of the drum tricks he’s picked up in the decade since their debut.  Once you hear that, you gain a new appreciation for Grainger’s rhythmic support throughout the album, noticing how he’s not only driving the beat but also engaging intriguing melodic support as well by effortlessly shifting styles and patterns.  But most importantly, the radical shift at the end shows fans that the band is capable of exploring even more styles, and that the band won’t be running out of ideas anytime soon.

You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine still is in my regular rotation ten years later, and at this point I’m willing to predict that The Physical World will follow the same path as well.  It’s already been stuck in my car’s stereo for the past week, and the good news is that I’m not even beginning to get tired of the album.  In other words, it’ll be definitely making an appearance on our Best Of list for 2014.

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.