Music reviews of Interpol's self-titled album and the Walkmen's 'Lisbon'

By David Malitz
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

New York and its music are perpetually cool, even if the particular brand of coolness is constantly shifting. In the early 2000s the Strokes ushered in what could be the final era of magazine-ready, fully styled rock-and-roll superstars; now the hippest groups to emerge from Brooklyn look like a hodgepodge collection of Ivy League grads who favor music that dabbles in basically every genre except rock-and-roll.

So where does that leave the Walkmen and Interpol, a pair of bands that crawled out of the city's shadows a decade ago playing the kind of moody, brooding songs that have at least temporarily taken a back seat when it comes to being the sound of the city?

The Walkmen -- a band whose roots are in the halls of D.C.'s St. Albans School -- seem at perfect ease on "Lisbon," the quintet's fifth album of original material in a startlingly consistent career. It's a sturdy collection of dirges that occasionally dazzles and decidedly builds on the band's well-seasoned recipe of using Hamilton Leithauser's elongated vocals and Matt Barrick's powerhouse drumming at the center of attention.

The Walkmen's greatest strength has always been a head-down determinedness. While that's still present on "Lisbon," the group takes the time to come up for some well-deserved air. For most of the album the band is content to shuffle along in open spaces, far from the claustrophobia of the city. "The country air is good for me," Leithauser croons on opener "Juveniles" as reverb-flecked guitar mingles with Barrick's rumbling rhythms. "Stranded" is a horn-fueled, border waltz, the soundtrack to riding into the sunset, and "All My Great Designs" is even more laid back, each member careful not to step on each other's toes.

As always, the highlights come when the band revs it up. "Angela Surf City" finds Leithauser entering red-in-the-face wailing territory while Barrick's casual gallop becomes a full sprint. No current band does hard-charging mini-anthems this well. It's an increasingly rare moment of urgency in the band's catalogue, but slow and steady has proved to be a winning strategy.

Whereas the Walkmen have never sounded more comfortable, the same cannot be said for Interpol. Instead of a gradual march to success, Interpol has gone through the hype cycle and come out barely intact. There was the breakthrough debut (2002's "Turn on the Bright Lights"), the major-label commercial disappointment, the frontman's solo side project, the departure of a key founding member (bassist/fashion plate Carlos Dengler) and, finally, the return to original indie label completely with the well-worn "self-titled album as restatement of identity" gimmick.

The problem is that there's little to identify with on "Interpol." Interpol always seemed like a marriage of convenience, made up of people who wanted to be in a band and just happened to end up in Interpol. The Walkmen grew up together and are a tight-knit unit -- even the band's questionable vanity project, a song-for-song cover of a Harry Nilsson album, was a full-on, all-in group effort. Interpol's disconnect is heard throughout the new album, which is directionless, bland and just generally boring.

Thanks to the stilted baritone of singer Paul Banks, Interpol has always endured comparisons to Joy Division, even though the foursome doesn't play the taut, tension-filled songs that made Ian Curtis and Co. such cult heroes. The sweeping dramatic gestures of fellow '80s U.K. bands Echo & the Bunnymen and the Chameleons were always more accurate points of comparison for the band's dark dynamics.

All of the individual elements are present on "Interpol" -- everything sounds fantastic, as crisp as the band's previous work. "Success" chugs along with chiming guitars, a slinky bass line that drives the melody and Banks offering his vague quotables ("I've got two secrets/But I only told you one/I'm not supposed to show you"). It's a formula that repeats itself throughout but rarely finds a worthwhile payoff. Interpol's songs have always had a tendency to drift but snapped you back to attention with quick bursts of blade-sharp catharsis. The new album is all atmosphere with none of the meat. The band would have been better off reuniting in two years for the 10th-anniversary "Turn on the Bright Lights" tour.

Recommended tracks

The Walkmen: "Angela Surf City," "Juveniles," "Stranded"

Interpol: "Lights," "Summer Well"

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