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We're Not Safe Yet
Interpol: Turn On the Bright Lights
I've recently been reminded of two persistent enviro-contextual discman-listening effects, at least for me: 1) Walking home from Chinatown on a pleasant Saturday afternoon, anything halfway decent sounds totally fabulous; 2) Sitting in a cramped airplane seat for six hours on the way to California, even the most wonderful music sounds fairly dreary. Neither individual thing should be particularly mysterious. In good sunlight, the album-length walk from Chinatown to my house in Cambridge is vivid and engaging, and the physical activity tweaks body chemicals and emphasizes rhythm. Airplanes, conversely, are physically uncomfortable, emotionally unsettling and aesthetically stunted, and even if they weren't, the white-noise level is oppressive all by itself. But then, music sounds great to me when I'm standing in a packed subway car, even for long periods of time, yet anxious and fatiguing if I'm listening on headphones in a perfectly comfortable hotel room. This suggests that the effects have much less to do with physical comfort than with my relationship to my environment. Maybe listening on headphones is a way of creating an aura of privacy in a public environment; or, put the other way, listening on headphones in a public space is a way of counterbalancing the otherwise claustrophobic insularity of the listening experience. Listening on headphones in a nominally private space feels wrong because it's a constraint within an environment one ought to be able to inhabit completely. (Cf. the wonderful scene of NJ listening to his discman in his own living room in Yi Yi; probably I'd have a very different view on this whole topic if I lived somewhere where I had to use headphones at home.)
The bad news is that the imminent acquisistion of the software company I work for by a larger one based in California will result in my spending a lot more time in airplanes and hotels than would otherwise be my preference. The good news is that there's plenty of good news. Hotels are easy enough to leave. Planes aren't, but it turns out that I find them excellent for reading, and Boston-to-San-Francisco is as book-length as Chinatown-to-Cambridge is album-length. I don't have to move, and the new company has cool toys, better corporate colors and publicly-traded stock.
And the timing of my first trip to the expectant-mother ship turned out to be particularly useful, as it resulted in my listening to Interpol's Turn On the Bright Lights in no less than six different ways over the course of one week: on a walk home, in the car on the way to a Revolution game, in my office at work, in the hotel room, on the airplane, and at home again on my usual stereo after I got back. I do not intend to incorporate this testing battery systematically into my listening methodology, but having done the whole set once, I might as well file a complete report.
The clearest, least complicated experience, by far, was the walk. Not only did the album sound good, but it actually sounded a little too good, and thus began decomposing from arrangements into individual noises. The surging bass on "Untitled" steals the song out from under the ricocheting guitars and unsteady singing. The exchange of energies between the stuttering kick drums and choppy guitars in "Obstacle 1" slashes across everything between them. The VU-ish reverb in "NYC" seems to somehow be extruding the source sounds, instead of vice versa. "PDA" is battered by its frantic, pulsing kick-drum. The woody first guitar in "Say Hello to the Angels" keeps me from ever fully focusing on the jagged second guitar. A quietly-doubled vocal at the beginning of "Hands Away" disarms an otherwise Mecca-Normal-ish minimalist guitar oscillation. Another growling bass usurps "Obstacle 2"; a series of half-stops fragments "Stella was a diver and she was always down"; metallic above-the-nut guitar pings, a thwacked snare, telephone-squeezed vocals and yet another bass quarrel their way through "Roland". Hushed vocals and a ticking hi-hat pace "The New". Paul Banks switches into a more stentorian mode for most of "Leif Erikson". These scattered timbres don't add up to an artwork by themselves, but they prepare for one, like the color palette does in Lily Chou-Chou no Subete, or the sinuous sentences in The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts, or the luminous rubbery buttons on my new cell phone.
In the car on the way back from the game, where I listen to things half through my own ears and half through my sister's, I temporarily stopped hearing sounds and started hearing lineages. Paul Banks' voice manages at least three different intensities, from a confessional murmur almost down to Darden Smith or Richard Shindell's intimacy, to a sturdy waver in the middle that crosses Morrissey with Liam O'Maonlai, to a more Mark Burgess-like howl at the strained end of the continuum. Tendrils of the Smiths snake through many of these songs, hinting sometimes at a punk pre-history that the Smiths never actually had (particularly in "Say Hello to the Angels", where the second guitar part basically morphs from "London Calling" into "This Charming Man"). When the guitars are allowed to chime a little, I hear hints of Cactus World News via the Sheila Divine. The Comsat Angels lurk at the back of the quieter spaces, Echo and the Bunnymen amidst some of the atmospherics, Killing Joke in shards of anger or pain. Farther back, the haunted ambiences of The Velvet Underground & Nico and the clipped affectations of Ziggy Stardust poke through periodically. Farther forward, many of the backgrounds are clean enough for Albini, and some of the understated conclusions would suit Travis. But running through everything, so integrally that I assume anybody making Joy Division comparisons didn't actually live through the mid-Eighties, are the Chameleons, and if I could only give Interpol one place in the rock family tree, it would be alongside Puressence as the Chameleons' once and future heirs, Puressence the noisier, more demonstrative sibling, Interpol the guarded, more intense one. The echo treatment on the guitars is straight off Script of the Bridge, but even more than that, the central tension between urgency and restraint seems as close to identical, adjusted for a decade and a half of elapsed time, as anything in 2002 could be, even including the Chameleons' own erstwhile comeback album. And if the packed house at the Chameleons' Boston show a couple weeks ago is indicative of anything global, maybe a few more people miss this style than I would have guessed.
In the office, with the volume down lower and a lot more distractions, I finally began to hear the larger overall structures of these songs instead of the tones and influences. An astonishing amount of the time, backing off and peering at a strange-sounding band from a safe distance reveals that they're basically mangling pop songs, but I don't think Interpol are. The compositions are much more fundamentally textural and linear than verse-chorus-verse, it seems to me, and even where there are patterns I feel like the underlying math comes from the blockier traditions of drum-and-bass and post-rock. Take the vocals out of most pop songs, and it will feel unmistakably like they're missing something; take the singing out of these and I suspect they would make just as much sense. Banks' vocal line is sometimes the melody, but sometimes just another thread of the arrangement, and where pop songs tend to have long sections where the instruments set up a holding pattern behind the singer, here Banks often seems at pains to avoid distracting from the prevailing mood of the music. Long runs of repeated notes are common, which gives many of these songs an intriguing tension between a fast pace of played notes and a much slower pace of musical transformation. Even without trying very hard to make overall sense of the lyrics, I can tell that they proceed fitfully, scattering images across the music instead of trying to yoke it to storytelling. The running order offers nothing as easy as slow-fast-slow, but substitutes its own logic of variation and episodicity, and I can clearly imagine this as the new rock soundtrack to a reissued version of Koyaanisqatsi in a universe where that film was the silent-era epic that Metropolis was in ours.
Listening in my hotel room, I finally began to feel the absence of familiar forms. I wanted to want to sing along (which is odd, since I had absolutely no intention of doing so), and there's precious little here that solicits the listener's participation that way. The broken phrases that poke out of these songs are individually memorable, but don't attempt to encapsulate the songs they belong to, the way pop choruses, especially, do almost axiomatically. When I listen to this record there are moments that feel more inspiring than others, but moments, not songs. Moods change in the middle of songs more often than at track boundaries, and I have to go back and double-check to be sure that there are even pauses between tracks, as my mental experience of the record is essentially seamless. In the plane, it's even worse, the minutes deforming to seem longer, the missing pop hooks turning into metaphors for the fact that there's no comfortable sitting position in that amount of leg room. Maybe there are no good airplane albums, but this one is especially bad, paranoid and relentless, an unwelcome gust of post-modernity aboard decidedly pre-post-modern transport. After it finished, I put the discman away.
But at home again, it's clear that I've become more attached to this album than any of these experiences capture. Neither the sound nor the structure are that different from things I already know, yet I feel, back here where listening is just listening, the old bracing surge of finally hearing something you didn't realize until that moment that the other things were not. I remember what it felt like as a kid to finally discover Boston, and then Rush, after the Bee Gees and REO Speedwagon and Steve Miller. I remember what it felt like to hear the four cymbal ticks and then everything explode into "Turn Up the Night" at the beginning of The Mob Rules, and realize that I never had to listen to Toto ever again. I remember hearing The Flat Earth for the first time, and Spirit of Eden, and Amazing Things. In the best such revelations, you didn't know until that moment that there was anything to be led to. I couldn't have told you that I was waiting for Gay Dad, bis, Life Without Buildings, Radiohead, AC Acoustics, Camden, Don Caballero and Pedro the Lion to lead to anything, much less a thing, yet here Turn On the Bright Lights somehow is, a culmination of impulses that even now I'm hard-pressed to explain as a set. It's been a year of pop and rock and uncomplicated things for me, and maybe Interpol is part of the process of resetting my metabolism to appreciate the new Low album properly (but quickly, before I have to recalibrate it again for Tori). Maybe it's partly that I've been putting too much into my schedule, and I need this fifty minutes adrift from everything. But maybe so do you.
Frou Frou: Details
And it's dangerous to stay adrift for too long, but fifty minutes isn't so much that you can't afford it twice, and my prescription for the second part of the therapy is Details, the debut album by the studio duo Frou Frou, to whose dopey name you should pay no heed. I wish to be on record as objecting to the general practice of attaching auto-play sound files to web pages, but I owe it one. I came across a link to Frou Frou's web site somewhere, clicked it in idle curiosity, and discovered in the brief bio that the singing half of the pair is Imogen Heap, whose 1998 solo album struck me as a confused and overwrought mess, like Sophie B. Hawkins with too many robots she hadn't quite convinced to follow orders. I was already reaching for the back button when a song started playing. "Breathe In", I think it was. It has these percussive little clicks at the beginning, and then this springy bass line. Kind of cool. But I'm still about to hit the button. Imogen starts singing. Hmm. Nice. Actually, very nice.
By the second verse, I'd flipped windows and added this record to my shopping list. If you liked the eccentricities of Imogen's I Megaphone, or know other-half Guy Sigsworth as a remixer, it's possible Details will strike you as a retreat, and you'll have to decide for yourself whether that's good or bad. It's a cool, smooth, composed record, the kind of thing I always thought "chill-out" should have kept meaning, instead of turning into a label for dance music that just isn't on this week's bpm. It's my successor to Mandalay, unapologetically unhurried and pretty, a whole album like the most serene instants of Emm Gryner's "Beautiful Things" or Stretch Princess's "All I Want", or what I imagined Portishead might sound like until I realized it was "-hop". "Let Go" is a fluttery gauze of fake strings and twitchy drum-machine rustle, with Imogen's melody always somehow a beat behind (or is it ahead?). "Breathe In" is bouncy, whirring and conversational, Imogen flipping in and out of falsetto and the arrangement built almost entirely out of sci-fi noises. "It's Good to Be in Love" sounds like modern technology has finally infected music boxes. "Must Be Dreaming" is julienned and reassembled a little like Sigsworth's Madonna track "What It Feels Like for a Girl", and the halting, carillon-ish "Psychobabble" could be a leftover from one of his Björk sessions, but the bounding "Only Got One" is exactly what I wish Paula Cole's third album had sounded like. "Shh" is a case study in building a Pro Tools pop song that doesn't disguise, apologize for or rely on its Pro Tools-ness, and could be my entry for that chapter of the same synth-pop textbook with earlier chapters based on somebody leaving a spare synthesizer in the studio Tubeway Army were using, and Thomas Dolby getting his first Octapad, and Kate Bush first locking herself in a barn with a Fairlight. The grandly delirious "Hear Me Out" ("I join the queue on your answerphone" is illogical, but perfectly evocative) pushes back towards the first week Everything but the Girl spent with d&b. "Maddening Shroud" sounds to me pleasingly like a Tasmin Archer update. "Flicks" sounds like another Björk song redone by an older elf. Only "The Dumbing Down of Love" breaks ranks and resorts to slow, mournful piano and acoustic guitar, and even that morphs back into synthetic textures before too long. "My headphones saved my life", Björk once claimed; "Music is worthless", Imogen says in her most Björk-like line on this whole record, "unless it can make a complete stranger break down and cry". But this isn't crying music, to me, it's music for hanging on this side of the edge of tears, lingering contentedly in melancholy, waiting for happiness to finish fading in, or to start.
Echo: Echo
The synthesis of Interpol and Frou Frou, to the extent it makes sense to talk about such a thing, would need to reconcile the two bands' notions of spareness, and find a melodic compromise between Interpol's austerity and Frou Frou's beepy energy. I can imagine arguing that Gay Dad were already a semblance of this, at least when they weren't getting carried away imagining themselves rock stars, but if we stipulate that it has to be closer to Frou Frou in structure, it could be Echo, a new project by well-traveled backing vocalist (and occasional solo artist) Joy Askew and New York trumpeter/electronica-producer Takuya Nakamura. The basic premise sounds worryingly contrived: burbling trance-jazz remakes of Cole Porter songs. It's not quite that simple, though. Only four of the eleven songs are Porter's. Of course, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "That Old Black Magic" and Bob Hilliard and Dave Mann's "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" both might as well be, and the less comment is made about remakes of "The Girl From Ipanema", the better our chances of never having to hear it again, but the four remaining tracks are Askew/Nakamura originals. If you didn't know any of these songs, though, I bet you'd have a hard time telling the new ones from the standards. All the arrangements are obdurately 2002, all the vocal treatments are similarly swoopy, sing-song and over-technical, and all the songs are effusive and temperamentally of the same vintage, whatever their actual age. Blurts of Nakamura's trumpet make sure you don't miss the point that this is Modern Jazz, and snare drums the size of yogurt containers remind you that drum-and-bass's chief innovation is bleeding all the percussive power out of drums, so you can have hundreds of them per measure without them imparting any appreciable rhythm.
And on paper it seems like I should absolutely hate this combination, but I don't. This is a one-gimmick album, but it's a gimmick Joy and Takuya expand to all its implications and consequences, rather than simply flaunting. Instead of this year's equivalent of Hooked on Classics or grunge hits redone as Muzak, Echo becomes a sort of roundabout pastiche of the history of intertwining jazz and synth-pop, and I end up replaying it partly hoping that some kind of karmic transference-effect will lead to Jane Siberry hearing it, and realizing that jazz, as an ingredient, neither precludes studio technology nor mandates spiritlessness. Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" ends up sounding a bit like a Pet Shop Boys remix, but doesn't forget Neneh Cherry's old Red Hot + Blue version. Later parts of the original "Sparks From a Wheel" have a noticeable Cardigans lilt. "Night and Day" lives with the memories of U2's version, and the Joe Jackson album of the same name (whose tour Joy played on). "Everytime We Say Goodbye" threatens to turn into one of those ponderous Simple Minds diva epics, but doesn't. "Can't Walk Away" overbalances toward d&b briefly, but the sampler tricks in "That Old Black Magic" are brightly reminiscent of Mandalay again. "Secret Self" hints at Annie Lennox, to me, and "Love for Sale" is incontrovertibly Joe Jackson-like (with some creaky Dolby-circa-The-Flat-Earth noises and the exact beat I once saw Jon Brion pull out of nowhere at Largo when he asked for requests and two people in the crowd yelled "Joe Jackson" and "drum-and-bass" at the same time). "The Girl From Ipanema" is the corresponding nod to Joy's tenures with Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel. "Surrender" plays with echoes of Björk and Suzanne Vega, and the whispery "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" turns torch-song and tragic. Whether the jazz elements here are good jazz or not, I am totally unqualified to say, but to the extent that they just represent complexity, in songs that always have some non-jazz element to keep them from devolving into a genre exercise, I like them just fine. I don't like drum-and-bass by itself, either, usually, but the bits of d&b here are twittering allegories about computers learning to amuse themselves. As with Turn On the Bright Lights and Details, this is a mood album for me. If Turn On the Bright Lights is about separation and security, and Details is about glimmery melancholy, then Echo is foreground music about background noise, a soundtrack for snow-emptied cities, perhaps, humans leaving their lights and buildings and circuits alone for an evening. Public space, again, turned into private space for whoever has the patience to stay behind.
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