I like low-key. Low-key is good. Far better for a new artist to creep up and surprise you rather than being pummeled into liking them by the press and blog machine. But just in case Matador’s press releases for Julian Plenti have been too subtle let me spell it out: Julian Plenti is Interpol’s lead warbler Paul Banks.
Although it may seem that Banks is doing the classic “three albums then a solo turn”, Plenti actually pre-dates Interpol, although the project was understandably put on hold when the fortunes of that band rose. With the discovery of Pro Logic in 2006 Banks returned to his Julian Plenti nom de plume and decamped last year to Seaside Lounge in Brooklyn to record his demos properly. While the spectre of Banks’ day job looms on several of the tracks, the only commonality most share is his distinctive nasally baritone. With scraping cellos, forlorn violin, flamenco guitar and ‘80s synthesiser …is Skyscaper is not merely an art-rock Interpol or disc of off-cuts from his main band.
Although initially the selections are somewhat laced with Interpol DNA; “Only If You Run” is part resigned optimism replete with Banks’ wry turn of phrase, “I’ve tasted degradation and found the lace and candle light”, plus loping bass, Depeche Mode electronic effects, and shuffled rhythms, whereas “Fun That We Have”’s muted grunge-like chords and dense instrumentation negates its simplistic and impenetrable lyrics (is it “I wasn’t reading with my telekinesis” or “And I was to lead him with my telekinesis”? Enunciate Paul, enunciate!). “Games for Days” is the most obvious Interpol bedfellow. Firmly in the “Slow Hands” mould it has the pounding bass, staccato drums, dense guitars and a rejected lover theme all present and accounted for.
From here a detour is taken into soundtrack style material, seemingly written for a film that exists only in the mind of Monsieur Plenti (er, Banks). “Madrid Song”, devoid of guitar or drums, repeats the sole lyric “Come have at us we are strong” over spare piano, cello and unintelligible vocal snippets. Like “Skyscraper”, it’s unsettling but not off-putting. “Girl on the Sporting News” is a blues-jazz number with a heavenly guitar twang, a seemingly straightforward tale of lusting over the titular news-girl. “On the Esplanade”, (pronounced es-pla-naid), is similarly affecting with acoustic guitar and strings proving a perfect late night companion.
In an album full of curve balls “Unwind” is the unlikeliest of all. With a thick synth bass riff and sampled trumpets it combines the electro-pop of The Pet Shop Boys and the post-punk rock of Editors before the lull of the middle eight chilling announces “Patience, patience, it’s safer for you now”. The only real clunker is “Fly as You Might”. Its pledge of relationship commitment is a hodge-podge of sloppy guitar and lazy drumming which goes nowhere. The enigmatically titled “H” features distorted Middle Eastern flavoured vocal samples and closes the album in suitably disquieting fashion.
Challenging the general consensus that Interpol’s whole is greater than the sum of their parts Julian Plenti is… Skyscraper reveals that perhaps Paul Banks is the real auteur of the group after all. As much as I’m a fan of Interpol, the sheer variety, not to mention the unexpected restraint offered here, has me perversely hoping that Interpol’s fourth album will be something of a failure just so Banks returns to his Plenti alter ego sooner rather than later.