Interpol, Ben Kweller, Hot Hot Heat, Sleater-Kinney

There were several notable albums that never got a proper review in Popshot. With the end of the year around the corner, I wanted to rectify that situation.

Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights (Matador)

Obviously the Joy Division rap is hard to beat, but to me Interpol also sound quite a bit like the Essence – a Dutch band that a friend directed me to with the admonition, “The Essence sounds exactly like the Cure.” It was true. The Essence did sound quite a bit like the Cure circa 1979-1981, but their guitar sound was more round, more polished, and more slippery. The Essence sounded fuller than the era of the Cure they mocked. Interpol’s guitars, bass and drums deliver the same full sound, though the voice is not a mousy wail but a gruff, dirty plea. “NYC” delivers a spooky chill and familiar warmth that makes me wish I lived in that city. “PDA”‘s cool changes betray the care Interpol takes in writing songs. Its lyrics make me want to lie on the floor in the dark (as do most of the album). Either that or turn it up so loudly that I can’t hear anything else. In many ways the record sounds so much like something many of us with a surfeit of Smiths, Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Ride, and New Order records have imagined that it’s almost not surprising to listen to — like it’s been pulled from our subconscious. Fantastic album.

Ben Kweller – Sha Sha (ATO Records)

What’s most obnoxious about this record is how effortless it all sounds. Anyone who’s ever sat down to write a song probably feels like strangling Kweller whose tunes just roll out like conversation. Influenced by all good pop music, Kweller pretty deftly avoids landing in any genre. What a remarkable accomplishment this is really defies description. “How it Should Be (Sha Sha)” opens the record in the sort of offhand manner which began so many Sebadoh songs and will immediately bring to mind Ben Folds’s piano work, but before you realize it, the song has blossomed into a full blown pop odyssey: the simple wordplay, the Beach Boys-esque background voices, and then the squealing guitar. Then, before over-indulging, it ends. “Wasted and Ready,” the single, sounds like the sort of tossed off guitar pop nugget that so many indie bands wish they could pull off. Throughout the record, Kweller will move from piano to acoustic guitar to dirty electric guitar with equal results – each song is melodic, hooky and seemingly too simple. Kweller’s lazy but perfect vocals, the afterthought of the instrumentation, and the easy songwriting all belie the extremely careful assembly of this album. To those without an indie record in their collection, this might sound unpolished, but it’s no slacker production. Ugh, and all this at only 21. Bastard.

Hot Hot Heat – Make Up the Breakdown (Sub Pop)

For whatever reason I just dread reading about these guys in any context of “garage rock.” For starters, their arrangements are more complex than the four-chords-let’s-go spirit of garage rock. Hot Hot Heat are more brainy than that. Just listen to the first verse of “Get In Or Get Out” where the guitar doesn’t repeat a simple figure under the melody. Or the bridge to “Bandages” which sounds abrupt but perfectly suits the song. Or the whole of “Oh Godammit.” Each is catchy in a twisty way. And each bounces enough to remind you that rock music was invented to dance to, not just bob your head. The intricate arrangements and catchy and hoarse vocals remind me of the English Beat (“Get In Or Get Out” especially) and have a whole New Wave-nerd-as-songwriter aura to them (think Costello, Joe Jackson). With the exception of the first two tracks, which I usually listen to last, the entire album burrows in further with each listen. These are intricate hooks. And Hot Hot Heat have created some seriously satisfying music.

Sleater-Kinney – One Beat (Kill Rock Stars)

When I saw S-K after their last release, All Hands on the Bad One, I made the observation that I’d been absorbing their music without knowing it. I haven’t had the same experience with One Beat. With their last three records – Dig Me Out, Hot Rock, and All Hands – S-K seemed to push their unique style into new forms. The results were always fulfilling. Perhaps I haven’t absorbed One Beat because largely, it feels like a repitition of forms they’ve already explored. “Oh!” is a great S-K “pop” song which stretches its arrangement into unexpected directions. “Step Aside” likewise. The political dissent of “Far Away” and “Combat Rock” sound just as laborious as all political punk. But I’m glad there’s a Sleater-Kinney around to dissent. At least it’s more complex than the palatable-to-the-bourgeoisie politics of Bruce Springsteen. As they’ve done before, Sleater-Kinney use their clashing guitar and vocal lines to express the confusion and angst of their generation. This time though, it feels a bit unravelled.