“Is anyone out there wasting their lives
On booze and drugs and husbands and wives and making money?”
Grinderman 2 isn’t that dissimilar, thematically, from Nick Cave‘s day job – there’s a fair bit of religion, and a preoccupation with hedonistic perils, among other things. Musically, however, it’s unafraid to stretch out a bit: “Evil” is the sludgiest bit of stoner rock-cum-death metal I’ve ever heard Cave wail over, and the dissonant jazz squalls on “Worm Tamer” are left untouched by maracas. Perhaps the closest the album gets to the brooding balladry of, say, The Boatman’s Call, or the non-garage rock portions of Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, is “When My Baby Comes”.
After an opening trio of swaggering, dirty blues, such respite is welcome, especially when it comes draped in mandolin adornments and boasts an opening passage with a close resemblance, dare I say it, to “Night of the Lotus Eaters”. Lucky, then, that “When My Baby Comes” also boasts one of Cave’s finest (and novel) choruses, which eventually erupts into a second half that’s substantially different. As in, the string arrangement is swept upwards into a frenzied shriek, the mandolin totally vanishes, and the predominant instrumentation comes from a howling lead guitar piercing through a filthy, groaning bassline.
Towards the end, all this madness is swallowed up into a fog of creepy FX, but only temporarily, because then the bass kicks in again with hurricane-like force for a desperate coda overlaid with a similarly impassioned vocal arrangement.
I’ve already listened to this one song at least five times today, and there’s still a good eight hours of it left.
At the apogee of the post-punk revival, you’d have been sensible in assuming that Interpol could reasonably expect to win big. With two albums under their belt, each with one foot on critical acclaim and the other on a reasonable level of commercial success, the band penned a doubtless lucrative contract with Capitol/Parlophone and so began the logical next step in their career, on a major label.
Except, showboating their new riches, they then made an embarrassingly mediocre album – Our Love To Admire. This major-label debut boasted all kinds of studio gimmickry (the synthesised oboe solo in “Pioneer To The Falls” springs instantly to mind), complicated song structures (I don’t think they’ll be repeating the reverse-vocal passage in “Wrecking Ball” any time soon), and the sticky production fingers of Rich Costey, who had at the time triumphantly helmed the production of Muse’s Black Holes And Revelations. Two things that the album lacked, however, were the tunes, and the cool. Our Love To Admire wasn’t filled to the brim with genuinely bad songs (though I’ll gladly bestow that accolade on “Rest My Chemistry”); the problem derived more from the fact that too many of the songs were bland, cheesy, forgettable and… uncool.
There, I said it. Somewhere along the line, between touring in support of Antics and the tortured gestation of Our Love…, Interpol wound up losing their cool. Where previously Paul Banks traded in a kind of lovably abstract circumlocution, now his lyrics were just plain wince-inducing. Where before Daniel Kessler had woven intriguing guitar-based journeys between the chords of songs, he now beat a sledgehammer through songs with over-processed, over-compressed textures. In an act of brutal criminality, Interpol forgot that it was their rhythm section that had made the band, downplaying at their peril Carlos Dengler‘s elastic disco basslines and Sam Fogarino‘s tricksy stickwork.
The closing track on Antics was, as far as I can make out, about a father and son arguing on a boat, Talented Mr. Ripley-style, written from the point of view of a sea urchin.
Track two on Our Love To Admire was about wanting a threesome to rescue your relationship.
Lucky, then, that for album number four, sophisticated Paul has showed up for the lyrics workshop, dispelling the tired rockstar clichés that so plagued its predecessor. But does the music match the lyrical and thematic intrigue?
Well, not quite. For one thing, the band appear to have developed a taste for some pretty unfashionable techniques, possibly taken from an instruction manual for a previous version of Rich Costey. So we get heaps of multi-tracked vocals tackling every possible harmony; oddly jarring drum machines in place of Sam Fog’s natural talent; synthesised orchestral arrangements floating on scummy washes of guitar. So far, so uncool.
There are songs that try and serve up the band’s former breed of choppy post-punk, like “Success” and lead single “Barricade”. These would be fine, if a bit derivative, except that they manage to sound at the same time laboured and skew-whiff. This is Type 1 Uncool: Forgivably uncool.
Then there are songs that try and improve upon the atmospherics of the previous album, shoehorning in lounge piano and tepid string arrangements and god-knows-what-else. The finale, entitled “The Undoing”, sees Paul Banks pleading with a Spanish version of himself. Toy Story 3, this is not. Songs like this, and also “Try It On” are Type 2 Uncool: Look Away Now, Modestly, Before They Attempt Something Even More Foolish.
Though I haven’t given this album up for dead yet, there is a line of criticism about Interpol so spot on I feel further analysis is possibly redundant. In the words of Dan Nishimoto, writing for Prefix Magazine,
Where they used to sound like the crackling of a subway car rounding a bend or the seediest alleys of New York in the pre-dawn hours, here they sound like alt-rock renderings of what moody post-punk is supposed to sound like.
Bands usually self-title their albums to set out their position. If it’s a debut, this is the band’s pocket-sized introduction of what to expect from them in the coming years (or, in the modern age, the coming fortnight, while their hype-inflated worth is still riding high on Twitter). If it’s an album later in the band’s career, this suggests a definitive account with subtle reinvention, as if this is from where future listeners should draw a template. If this was Interpol’s ambition, then I am tempted to say Carlos Dengler was justified in walking away from the band as soon as the album was completed, so that he does not feature in such a template.
And this wasn’t even supposed to be a review of the album.
My love of Fabriclive.36 has got me into trouble before – apparently it’s not appropriate to like both Gang of Four and also Daniel Wang. This hasn’t put me off owning up to being unabashedly besotted with Hercules and Love Affair, a disco-revivalist collective who I tipped for wider fame back in 2007, when I first heard their debut single, “Classique #2”. It was b/w “Roar”, and I almost instantly recognised the vocal stylings of Antony Hegarty, which were woven into the fabric of the track. A year later, their self-titled debut hit the shelves and I think I was proved right. Shame that my other tip from that season (Syclops, if you’re interested) never came to much.
Anyway, I hear there’s a new H&LA album coming out in January, entitled Blue Songs, which is close enough for me to start raving on about them all over again. So gently close your bedroom door, put on your dancing shoes, and play the video above, which sees the troupe blaze through “Hercules Theme” in front of a staggeringly beautiful Chicago dusk.
Alongside the glamour and divahood, what attracted me to H&LA’s music was the unmissable waft of tragedy buried in it. Cleverly dressing songs up in Greek mythology is one way of alluding to “how horribly it [the disco scene that the music references] all ended”, to quote Alexis Petridis. Just as the image of Hercules wandering the island in search of his lost love proves upsetting for H&LA main man Andrew Butler, to me, their music is infused with a gentle yet irrevocable descent into sadness and miasma (in the ancient Greek sense of the word).
“Facilis descensus Averni”
Easy is the descent into hell, says Virgil, and Hercules and Love Affair is a lush and dancefloor-ready document of this descent. The album begins almost in torch-song mode, with Antony wailing “I cannot hold half a life / I cannot be half a wife” – a stark warning to those on the path of hedonism and debauchery. Following this prelude, the first half of the album has an overwhelming feeling of pleasure to it, from the refracted mantra of “You Belong”, to the decadent horns and clavinet in “Hercules Theme”. The bridging point is undoubtedly “Blind”, in which Antony reminds us once again of what will befall our protagonist, and, by implication, his history, over the top of strings, horns, and rattling electronics.
In his June 2008 interview with Heiko Hoffman, Andrew Butler recalled talking to the owner of “bizarre” clothes shop Smylon Nylon, who also made mixtapes containing Arthur Russell, Cerrone and Telex, among others. Butler quotes the owner, Chris Brick, as taking him aside and saying,
“Listen, you’re gay, right? This is your music. This is your history. You should go find this music and play it for people!”
Hercules and Love Affair sees Butler bringing to fruition the task that Brick bestowed upon him.
From there on in, the music takes a queasier, more unsettling turn. To quote Petridis again, “Aids brought the disco era’s freewheeling hedonism to a terrible close”, and songs like “Easy” and “This Is My Love” bear testament to these latter days. The former track is an exercise in rawness, as an unnaturally low-pitched Antony intones a mournful lullaby amidst a collage of detuned synths and clattering percussion that sounds like tennis shoes squeaking off the court. This is closer to the territory of Hegarty’s day job of fronting Antony and the Johnsons, albeit with an electronic slant.
The album closes with the uncharacteristically goofy “True/False, Fake/Real”, but there’s truly no escaping the alluring tragedy that the rest of the record deals in. It’s like the history lesson you always wanted to hear.
Always good to see Nick Cave’s 9-to-5 office hours paying dividend, whichever outlet from which it may emerge. Grinderman’s eponymous first album was a lecherous riot and a blessed offering to Onan. This time round, the primates are out and the wolfman is in, as evidenced by artwork and lyrics currently doing the rounds.
None of this can prepare you, however, for the hungry, visceral power of lead single, “Heathen Child”, which is best heard in conjunction with its John Hillcoat-directed video. Warning: this video is nothing like The Road. Consistently hilarious in its lyrics (“She don’t care about Allah – she is the Allah”) and bursting with Warren Ellis’ typically squalling noisemakers, “Heathen Child” is a seething, slithering mountain of MENACE, and it’s out to get you, personally.
She’s sitting in the bathtub, sucking her thumb…
Oh, and did I mention there’s a special version of the song (entitled “Super Heathen Child”, because Nick Cave doesn’t care about looking ridiculous) engorged with a guitar solo from Mr. Robert Fripp?
The album, Grinderman 2, is out on September 13th. Prepare for a snarling monster of bluesy madness that makes Jack White’s chimerical side-projects look like Fisher Price nursery rhymes.