at the Empty Bottle, September 6
Making rock music involves a lot of promiscuous recycling. Euphemistically, this is called "assimilation of influences" or "working in the tradition of." But ask your average indie rocker what his favorite band right now sounds like and he's likely to describe it using the names of two or three other bands. Music fans have, in some ways, given up on bold originality, and can be sated by slight variations on the well-worn. This isn't as bad as it sounds--imprecise copying and recombination are the agents of rock's evolution.
But there's a distinction to be made between the natural emulation that a group might begin with while finding its own sound and the calculated sort done for the immediate nostalgic thrill. In the 50s Britain was awash in cheap copies of American rock 'n' rollers. Young rabid fans of American R & B, rock, and blues tried to reproduce note for note the music of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, or Muddy Waters. But somebody somewhere upped the tempo on the American imports to keep up with the speeding internal rhythm of the mod masses, and soon the Brits were in a race to outdo one another with the loudest volume, the heaviest sound, the neatest studio tricks. By the end of the 60s everyone in America was trying to one-up Sgt. Pepper's.
If there is magic in rock, it is that attempts at reproduction sometimes result in a lucky mistranslation. That blues riff is durable ironically because it rarely comes out the same way twice. Bands are not Xerox machines, and if they nail one stylistic detail they're just as likely to completely flub up something else. The Sex Pistols, generally hailed for raising the punk flag and walking 70s rock off the plank, started out playing music that was barely a decade old yet. "I was interested in the mod energy," John Lydon says in the liner notes to a '95 comp. "We had to begin somewhere, and that was as good a place as any to start." At least one early Pistols set included only a few originals, snuck in between the Who's "Substitute," the Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction," and "Through My Eyes" by the Creation. But the band sometimes changed the lyrics for shock value, and took the overdriven guitar to nasty extremes. Put on the bondage pants and you've got a blueprint for much of the confrontational antipop to come.
Lately corpses are being disinterred whole again, and the media, traveling at the speed of news in the 21st century, are making stars of the grave diggers. The current early-80s revival is safely fashionable and fashionably late. It started in the 90s, and seemed to be on the right track: Olympia punk outfit Satisfact had a New Order/Joy Division obsession, and Ohio spazzes Brainiac obviously listened to Devo, but both assimilated more than they impersonated. Now underdeveloped groups like Soviet and A.R.E. Weapons (both of whom are associated with the electroclash phenomenon) wear their primary influences (Yaz and Suicide, respectively) like Underoos and the editors of Vice go crazy. Contentment with the rehashed appeal of the recent past, however provocative, is a dead end. Fischerspooner's infectious club hit "Emerge" repeats the lines "You don't need to emerge from nothing / You don't need to tear away." True, but you can't ride with training wheels forever either.
Given enough time, a game of dress up can turn into something real. Take the New York quartet Interpol: if you were cognizant back when buttoning an Izod all the way up was considered a statement, their new Turn on the Bright Lights will definitely sound familiar. Singer Paul Banks sounds like a distant cousin to Ian Curtis; he even has a discernible (and authentic--he spent his formative years in the UK) English accent. Their "Obstacle 1" has the romanticism and controlled power of early Echo & the Bunnymen; as in that band, the tightly wound heavy beats balance the occasional preciousness of the vocals. Throughout the album they show an awareness, attributable to the Gang of Four, that throbbing bass lines make amazing foils for fey songs. And "Say Hello to the Angels" uses the same sort of hopped-up rhythm that created delicious tension with Morrissey's croon in the Smiths. Turn on the Bright Lights was mixed in part by Gareth Jones, whose production credits include Depeche Mode, Erasure, Wire, and the Bad Seeds. And at the Empty Bottle last weekend, the band took the stage looking like Josef K or the Subway Sect in dark suits, sweaters, and ties.
But they're not purely retro. On the atmospheric "Hands Away" the band sounds unhurried, minimally rhythmic, not unlike current British upstarts Clinic. Hecklers' requests for "Love Will Tear Us Apart" get no smiles from the stage; instead the band answers with more songs that have an overall density and quick movement that are very contemporary. The smartly constructed "PDA" is as fastidious live as on record, stopping and starting with a controlled bite, alternating between Banks's distracted choruses and sections of controlled guitar interplay, before finally going out anthemically. On "Obstacle 1" drummer Sam Fogarino changes up the rhythm in ways that would have been far too frenetic for the early 80s.
What's more, Banks's lyrics are too confounding and interesting to be a copyist's work. They tend to suggest bored sophistication rather than enveloping gloom. He teases, "You're so cute when you're frustrated," and offers, to no one in particular, "200 couches where you can sleep tonight." The dark, multisectioned "Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down" makes the lines "She was my electronic sex toy / She went down down there, down there for me" more pretty than nasty. And the signature tune "NYC" goes from "The subway she is a porno / And the pavements they are a mess / I know you have supported me for a long time / Somehow I'm not impressed" to the affecting, rolling ending "It's up to me now / Turn on the bright lights." In almost every cut on the album, the band uses those stolen sounds to create drama from the ground up. Where you might expect to find empty pose, there's an artful, confident mix of postpunk's jagged angst and new wave's noirish flourishes and something you can't put your finger on that makes it worthwhile. Nobody has a name for that, yet.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.