The album is dead? Not on our watch

 

Each month, our Album Club manager DARAGH DOWNESwill invite a small but perfectly formed band of eager listeners to take the disc formerly known as the long player. Live with it. Listen to it. Use it to keep the door ajar. Whatever they see fit. Then we give them biscuits and ask them to tell us what they think. Like a book club – without the books. And you can join in too

INTERPOL frontman Paul Banks recently told The Tickethe has always been his own worst critic. He obviously hasn’t met Nike Olumide or Theresa Black.

Each time Nike sat down at her computer to give Interpol a good listen, the young Dublin student found herself struggling to make it past the first two or three tracks.

The reason?

VOCAL CRITICS

“His voice,” she says with an almost gothic shudder. “I could listen if it was instrumental, but you can’t hear what he’s saying, and the tone of his voice is very, very boring.”

For Nike, whose tastes are catholic enough to embrace anything from Muse to Florence and the Machine, Interpol’s lack of an engaging lead vocalist means that the band’s “not particularly outstanding or catchy” music has zero chance of winning her over.

Theresa is no less damning. As the recruitment specialist listened to the album on her MP3 player on the way to work, Banks’s “drab”, “depressing” and at times “horrendous” voice made her feel like riding her bike into traffic. “If you’re really not enjoying it that much,” she wanted to shout at the singer, “just stop!”

So allergic did Theresa become to Banks’s studiedly impassive baritone that she soon had to take a complete break from the album. She spent several days treating her traumatised ears to a therapeutic cocktail of “cheesy pop and r’n’b”.

What happened next, upon her reluctant return to Interpol, took her by surprise: she found the album, well, “tolerable”. Not that she would be any more inclined to go out and actually, you know, buy this kind of stuff in the future, mind. But it no longer felt like quite the crime against humanity she had first thought it.

And what of the singing? Had it also risen in Theresa’s esteem? “The music far outweighs the vocals or the lyrics.” That would be a no, then. “It was only when I could get over the vocals and not think about the lyrics that I enjoyed the music.” Ouch. “And the music is good.”

PRODUCING PROBLEMS

For Laurence Mackin and Paul McLoone, both long-time Interpol admirers, the criticisms voiced by Nike and Theresa are well taken.

Laurence found the album very hard to get into. This surprised the self-confessed musical miserabilist, for whom forbiddingly austere soundscapes are usually food and drink. Something felt wrong with this record, and the problem seemed to centre on you-know-who’s you-know-what: “My initial thing was I didn’t like it very much. I found it very difficult to get past Paul Banks’s vocal. It’s really bleak and it’s very heavy.”

Laurence suggests the problem may be technical rather than laryngeal: “They seem to have recorded two vocals and they’ve put one vocal on top of the other.” This relentless double-tracking of Banks’s voice, he argues, lends it a painfully “overproduced, compressed and processed” quality, sucking out of it whatever life it may have had.

Paul, no slouch in the singing or sound production departments himself, is quick to pick up on this theme. “The sound on it I’m surprised by. The last couple of records were so brilliantly produced. I’m surprised to find the name Alan Moulder on the mixing credit because he’s really, really good. I think this could have sounded better. The vocal does sound kind of harsh. It’s kind of a bit sore on the ear, whatever way it’s been recorded.”

For Laurence and Paul, then, Interpol have done themselves no favours on the production front. Banks’s voice, an acquired taste at the best of times, has rarely sounded more alienating.

PUMP UP THE VOLUME

But what of the album as a whole? Did it grow on these two?

For Laurence, enjoyment came slowly, but come it did – on the very eve of our Album Club meeting. “I was getting so annoyed with it, I was pushing the headphones up really loud to listen to the thing and just get past the jaysusing vocal.” This pumping-up of the volume did the trick. Laurence found himself tuning in strongly to the syncopated grooves going on in the band’s rhythm section.

As to how much more the album will continue to grow on him, that’s an impossible question. As Mao’s buddy is reputed to have said when asked for his assessment of the French Revolution, it’s too early to tell.

IT CREEPS UP ON YOU

Paul, for his part, came to Interpol with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. He has always loved the idea of “a bunch of guys in really good suits sounding a bit like Joy Division”, but felt their last album (2007’s Our Love to Admire) represented a “slight misstep” for the band.

So what’s his verdict on this one?

“I’d put it better than the last record, but not really in the same league as the first two.” A return to form, then, but only of sorts.

Paul has, however, been struck by the album’s downright uncanny ability to insinuate itself into the listener’s good graces: “It’s a real grower of a record. Never was that a truer phrase actually than in the case of this record. It creeps up on you.”

He has also noticed on his show that the songs keep passing a crucial litmus test. “There’s a funny thing that happens with radio where you listen to a track before the red light goes on. For some reason, maybe it’s just a change in one’s mental attitude because you’ve gone on air and your nervous system has adjusted to that, records can sound a lot better or indeed a lot worse when you’re on air. And the tracks on this album have been sounding better and better and better.”

Could Interpol even turn out to be a slow-burning classic?

One thing’s for sure: this angsty album will never appeal to a mainstream audience. Its ideal listener, as Paul remarks wryly, seems to be “any male between 15 and 30 who feels no sense of ridiculousness at all for being seen on public transport reading Jean-Paul Sartre.”