[14 October 2003]

By Alex Romanelli

Turn Down the Bright Lights

Judging by their set at the Palladium tonight, “Turn on the Bright Lights” is not simply the title of Interpol’s debut album, but it also spells out their simple stage formula. The New York quartet’s performance was so dominated by a blanket of blinding colored lights that it threatened to obscure the band, who seemed content to shield themselves from the audience. The lights were perhaps designed to hide that this was at least the third time Interpol had been through town touting essentially the same set.

Going from hotly tipped underground act to Matador Records and then becoming the latest alternative buzz band has clearly taken its toll on Interpol. The band seemed sluggish and tired, which isn’t too surprising when one considers that they’ve been on the road pretty much constantly for the last couple of years, playing the same songs every single night. All this combined to have the strange effect of making the concert seem less like a gig and more like every other time you’ve played the album.

It’s not that the older material is bad, but the over-familiarity of Interpol’s sound—an inevitable result of wearing one’s influences far too prominently—gives a very lackluster air. Only bassist Carlos Dengler appeared to be having fun, animatedly making the most of the audience’s unwavering adulation, aggressively charging around the stage and upstaging his bandmates, who were decidedly morose by comparison. Dengler is clearly the band’s Simon LeBon to the others’ Ian Curtis wannabes.

Interpol’s hour-long set included just three songs not on the album, each a welcome relief—eschewing the band’s trademark early ‘80s revisionism of overt Joy Division and Smiths influences in favor of a more upbeat sound, with Paul Banks’ vocals incorporating elements of Bowie and his bandmates stretching as far back as Eno-era Roxy Music (although substituting glam for glum.)

While a slight twist on the tried and true Interpol formula, the new songs were still familiar enough to keep the specter of all these Joy Division comparison hanging around. Banks’ vocals do bear an uncanny, unavoidable resemblance to Curtis’. Given those new songs, it seems difficult to imagine Interpol ever breaking free of labeling and reference points. While the album features enough highlights to elevate the songs beyond mere homage, based on their current live set, the majority of the band is clearly tired of having played the same songs repeatedly for a couple of years, and it shows. The inventiveness of the album—the successful way it combines fairly standard influences with enough skill to produce something that sounds both retro and modern in equal measure—has been bludgeoned out of their set, replaced with plodding, workmanlike renditions of the songs.

One exception is “NYC”, the elegiac paean to Interpol’s hometown, which on this night achieved a moment of grandeur, partially due to a wise decision to augment the four-piece arrangement with the addition of a keyboard player for this tour. But sadly, any such grandeur was not maintained throughout Interpol’s set. Closer “PDA” should have been an angry excursion through a dark psyche, but instead just sounded retro-by-rote.

Anyone who owns Turn on the Bright Lights knows Interpol are a band capable of some fantastic things, but until they begin touring a sophomore album, do yourself a favor: stay home, turn the lights down low and just play the record.

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