too much typing—since 2003

10.09.2004

Interpedantics

A week or so ago, in passing I mentioned the inevitable comparisons of Interpol to Joy Division. I also noted that such comparisons, as applied to Interpol's new album, Antics, were pretty much wrong. What's interesting - and at times even frustrating to me - is not only why such comparisons persist (different people have different ears, after all) but why the comparisons are so monolithic, with always the same band being mentioned. One might almost suspect some critics of living in an echo chamber, or if there were a power-hungry ideology of musical taste, functioning like the Fox News apparat and transmitting talking points for its minions.

It's also curious, the vehemence with which some critics damn a band for, in their ears (or imaginations), sounding like another band. I mean, so what if they did? It's not as Joy Division is around to make any more records, and it's not as if sounding like Joy Division were the key to financial success. A reasonably good example of the sort of attitude I'm talking about is Tom Laskin's review of Antics in Madison's The Isthmus. The overkill of Laskin's graverobbing metaphor is odd - I mean, did his good friend Ian Curtis chat with him the night before he hanged himself and say, "Tom, the one thing I'd hate more than anything else if a band from New York City with stupid haircuts sounded vaguely like us twenty years from now"?

Really, though, the notion that Antics is a carbon copy of a Joy Division record seems almost useless to readers, and leads me to ask, what's a review for? When I wrote reviews, I did so to let people know what a record was like to me, so they'd have some idea whether they might like it or not. And here's the big problem with the strategy taken by reviewers like Laskin: what use is this to a reader? It would be a reasonable assumption that if someone likes Joy Division, they might like music that's reminiscent of Joy Division; that is, they like some of the things Joy Division's music does, so they might like other bands that employ similar musical strategies. This assumption underlies critical comparisons, of course, which work best when they're specific. That is, saying a band "sounds like Joy Division" is much less useful than saying a band's guitar player "plays single- and double-note guitar lines similar to Bernard Sumner's work in Joy Division." But how useful is a review that says that new band The Double-Dribbling Wilburys sounds like David Bowie...to such an extent that it irritates the critic, a fan of David Bowie? If you hate Bowie, I suppose you might conclude you'd most likely dislike the other Wilburys - but what if you like Bowie? (And which Bowie?) The problem is that Laskin (and too many other critics) isn't specific enough: he claims, essentially, that Interpol steals Joy Division's sound in every respect. Problem is, the record just doesn't sound all that much like Joy Division.

When Laskin refers to "Interpol's habit of pushing spare bass lines to the front of the mix," he acts as if Joy Division invented the idea. And anyway: (1) the bass isn't that prominent on Antics; (2) Peter Hook's bass-playing wasn't "spare" at all: quite often, in fact, his parts would couple a countermelody in a higher register while playing a bass note on an open string (such as on the main riff for "She's Lost Control"). That style and sound of bass-playing, highly influential in the eighties, is nowhere to be found on Antics. Sure, Interpol sometimes drops out other parts to let the bass play on alone...which it also does with guitars, and with drums; and which is hardly unique to them or Joy Division.

Laskin also claims Antics "apes" Joy Division's production techniques. One of the most annoying aspects of critical groupthink comparisons is their vagueness. Which production techniques are those? On which Joy Division record? The "spare" (to borrow his word), dry sound of much of Closer, or the far more humid, keyboard-drenched sound of late singles like "Love Will Tear Us Apart" or "Atmospheres"? At any rate, to my ears Antics sounds much brighter than either Unknown Pleasures or most of Closer, while avoiding that too-shiny eighties keyboard sound that sometimes colored Joy Division's keyboard parts.

Or take a look at the colorful adjectives Laskin coughs up to describe Joypol (in his ears, you see, they're the same band): horripilating (a great word referring to that feeling you get when your body hair bristles), depressive, spare, funereal, disturbing... Pretty grim. That last one (disturbing) occurs as Laskin describes Curtis's singing as "disturbing minor-key intoning." But about half the tracks on Antics begin in major keys, and many of them stay there pretty strongly. (Actually, one thing that makes Interpol distinctive is their chord voicing, which exploits major/minor ambiguity by placing the bass on notes other than the root of the chord. End of music lesson.) How does the album begin? With a big, plummy organ (not a keyboard associated with Joy Division) on a big ol' C major chord, which then rises through a classic, fifties-inspired chord sequence.

In fact, the damned thing almost sounds like the band, having finished casting its eye across the Atlantic at eighties-era British bands (for what it's worth, I hear far more Kitchens of Distinction, or Echo & the Bunnymen, than Joy Division), looked in the other direction, across another, smaller body of water, and spent some time on the Jersey backstreets with Bruce Springsteen. (I'm thinking they might have been directed there by the most Springsteenian Brit band of the early eighties, on its most Bruce-influenced album: Dire Straits, on Making Movies. Hell, Springsteen's keyboard player, Roy Bittan, is all over that record.) Interpol's aura of melancholy romanticism and gritty street drama is closer on this album to Springsteen than to Joy Division's more grim, depressive, and inertia-ridden mood. Want more evidence? "C'mere" also makes use of a modified fifties-style chord sequence (something the Springsteen of Born to Run and Darkness at the Edge of Town was fond of), and the mix of keyboards (usually organ) and guitar throughout Antics is similar to the sound of those albums. Yes, I know - that's an utterly crazed theory. Tell you what, though: put on Antics for someone who hasn't heard it yet, and say it's a bonus track on a newly released version of Making Movies (Springsteen wouldn't work, because Springsteen fans are utter fanatics and know every note on every mouldering piece of tape in the vault). Until Banks begins singing, I think you'll succeed.

I will grant that the Bruce comparison is a bit of a stretch. But I don't think it's an illusion, either. Interpol does something any good band should do: it takes in a huge variety of influences and distills them into its own sound and approach. (Here's one of the best reviews of their debut I've read, which also points out the underheralded structural distinctiveness of their songs.) Joy Division is in the mix, to be sure. But if I'd set out to listen to the record to find the extent to which Joy Division was an influence, the differences would strike me a lot more forcefully than any similarities.

Except on "Length of Love": Paul Banks' vocal entrance is the most Curtis-like thing he's ever done. Oh well: sometimes influences just come through.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Totally agree, inasmuch as I haven't actually listened to the album yet (though I do own it). So have you sent this rebuttal to Laskin? Those critics need to be put in their place.

--Flasshe

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