Julian Plenti – Julian Plenti Is… Skyscraper [Album]


Originally published at Sonic Dice, August 2009.

The pretentiously-titled Julian Plenti is… Skyscraper sees Interpol frontman Paul Banks haunted by, and partly-successfully banishing, the looming shadow of his influential New York post-punk outfit. Banks for some reason chooses to adopt the odd moniker of ‘Julian Plenti’ for his debut solo outing; perhaps because ‘Sasha Fierce’ had already been taken. He also returns to Matador for the album’s release, the record label on which Interpol made their name. To warn you in advance, ‘Interpol’ will be an oft-repeated word in this review; Julian Plenti is… Skyscraper’s aural proximity to Interpol is nearly always forefront in the mind when listening to it. Oh, and I shall refer to Julian Plenti is… Skyscraper simply as Skyscraper from this point on, as repeating the full title leaves such a nasty taste in my mouth that I can’t bear to do it.

Opener Only if You Run’s intro proves something of a false dawn, promising a radical electronic departure which doesn’t really materialise. As soon as the bass and drums kick in, things become gradually more familiar until Banks’ voice enters and things genuinely do become Interpol-ish. Close listening reveals layered keyboards, but the mix puts guitars, bass, drums and voice at the forefront which seems if not quite a safe decision, then not exactly an adventurous one. Perhaps Skyscraper’s sound is most reminiscent of Our Love to Admire, but just because it isn’t ‘classic’ Interpol that is recalled doesn’t diminish the similarities with Banks’ main project. It’s as if he had a blueprint whilst making Skyscraper that he kept obscuring with bells, whistles and coffee cups; but from time to time he cleared his desk and rediscovered it. Although this is a more polluted sound than Interpol’s sterilised, scientifically-precise environ, some parts really do stray perilously close to how you’d imagine their fourth album sounding. As a whole it’s difficult to shake the feeling that this is an evolution of the spiky post-punk sound rather than anything truly unique. Free track Fun That We Have, despite being punctuated by processed guitars sounding like a 21st century music box and Banks’ higher pitched than usual vocals lending a quavering feel, is again nothing we haven’t heard before from him. The main problem with Skyscraper is emphasised by Games for Days, in that Interpol have such a strident sound all their own that anytime the album strays even vaguely in their direction it’s immediately obvious. That said this is probably the song most likely to please Interpol fans; the guitar break just before a final crashing Slow Hands-style chorus sends the track spiralling into the ground being its highlight.

Whilst it’s all very well catering to his pre-existing fanbase, in order for this solo album to be a goer Banks must also find his own niche. The title (ish) track Skyscraper goes some way towards forging this, being the first really very different track. It features hypnotic fingerpicked guitar progressions, violins stroked over dainty piano keys and the most timid of woodwind sections in a very pretty and beautifully-written drift. Although just as the overlapping guitar tracks are meshing and entwining nicely, the drums stomp in possibly a bit too loudly. Whilst the snare is fine, the bass is initially a bit too intrusive-sounding until Banks sidles up to the mic, which evens things out. But great effort overall. The short, sweet Madrid Song showcases excellent instrumentation which is assured and mature. Its introverted romanticism and close, personal sound is reminiscent of something like Neighbourhood #1 from The Arcade Fire’s Funeral. Possibly the single repeated line is a bit of a misjudgement; Banks is so well known for his excellent single lines (“Her stories are boring and stuff, she’s always calling my bluff” anyone?) that “Come have at us we are strong” is comparatively weak. However the decision to base the song around seven monosyllabic words repeated throughout does reinforce well the intentionally staccato nature of his writing. No Chance Survival features a great guitar riff, this time something worth repeating throughout. Whilst a stuttering tremolo synth line is definitely very Interpol – particularly reminiscent of Take You On A Cruise, off of Antics – Banks is clearly an artist deservedly growing in confidence. The muddy quality of an upright bass breaks refreshingly from Carlos D.’s clean and precise bass sound; xylophone and a nice synthesized string section add to the melancholy atmosphere, capping off probably the most impressive track on the record so far. By the time Unwind rolls around, Skyscraper is really starting to hit its stride; any thoughts of a simple Interpol rehash have largely been quashed. It’s a little bit like The Postal Service, which in hindsight is a strange statement to make given how the album started. You get the feeling that this is the track that Banks has tried to make sound least like Interpol, and he’s evidently had tremendous fun in doing so. Buzzing, atonal synths go mentally 80’s, and a trumpet peal will either hook or annoy the listener throughout; but as Banks’ croon of “I’ll make time just for you” gives way into artificial choir voices reminiscent of Paranoid Android, nobody could deny Unwind’s windswept ambition.

Girl on the Sporting News ‘sports’ chiming, queasy Chin Up Chin Up guitars in its lurching Modest Mouse-style groove, and displays a less morose sound than Interpol and stalkerish humour in the subject matter. But the feeling is gained that Skyscraper is beginning to wander very slightly; this is confirmed by On the Esplanade which – pretty though it is – settles for reiterating the album’s previous brushstrokes over painting anything new. Fly As You Might’s palm muted guitar riff plants us firmly back in Interpol territory, Our Love to Admire again to be precise. The interweaving guitars and touches of synth at least show evolution from the punching powerchords of the first two albums. That said, the corkscrewing guitar riff two-thirds through is culled almost straight out of Narc. The album’s instrumental ending, H, is an interesting if not wholly successful stab at some unusual sequencing. Synthesizers coupled with a simple but effective piano line recall Young Team-era Mogwai, and a world music influence is hinted at in the shamanistic chanting. But H ends with reverberating strings and horns echoing off to the horizon as the guitar refuses to complete its riff, concluding the album on an unexpected and disquieting note of tension. Clearly it’s great for music to elicit such a powerful response, but it’s fair to question if unease is the correct feeling to provoke at the record’s conclusion.

On a personal level, I was ready to hate this album. Having heard the free download offered on the Julian Plenti and Matador websites, all I got was Interpol. And the way in which Interpol unceremoniously ditched Matador in favour of Capitol is only exacerbated by Banks crawling back to Matador because a major label presumably won’t touch this record. Indeed, upon the first few listens it all sounds a lot like it could be Interpol’s new album; but Banks’ vision on the more ambitious tracks is hard to fault. Fair enough ‘the I word’ are never completely exorcised from Skyscraper’s corridors and cellars, but surely it would’ve been infinitely more maddening if Banks released a jazz fusion record or something. Credit where credit’s due, he wholly won over this naysayer, and I suggest he’ll do the same to you given a decent chance. Julian Plenti is… Skyscraper is such fine work I’ll even say its full title.

8 out of 10.

Sonic Dice score: 4 out of 6

Unwind on Spotify
Banks cuts loose to initially garish, eventually dazzling, effect.

Matador
Julian Plenti on Myspace
Julian Plenti on Last.fm

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