by Philip Moss
I’ve often wondered what would have become of Joy Division if the untimely death of Ian Curtis hadn’t occurred. Would the band have been able to morph – particularly as they did – with their former singer still fronting the band? Because such was the unique intensity of Curtis’ voice, that I struggle to imagine him singing for a band that sounded anything other than like Joy Division did – and certainly cannot imagine his lyrical and vocal style melded with the global, dance phenomenon of Blue Monday.
The same issue has also become of Paul Banks. Since 2001’s Turn Out The Bright Lights, the Interpol front man has found himself forging a path that’s resulted in very similar sounding records. 2018’s Marauder was a refocusing of sorts, but even the move to work with mega producer, Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev), after the previous experiments with Rich Costey (Sigur Rós, Death Cab For Cutie), left the band still sounding like… Interpol. So was it the writing, the sound of the band, or just indeed Banks’ voice, which dominated to the point that whenever he opens up into a microphone, the songs end up feeling the same.
Having released six records to date with Interpol, two solo records (Julian Plenti is… Skyscraper and Banks), his Banks & Steelz collaboration, and an ill-fated hip hop record that for the basis of this piece we shall deem null and void, the Essex born front man has stepped away from the New York city trio once more – starting another trio, as it happens – with Josh Kaufman and The Walkmen’s Matt Barrick. On paper, Muzz are an exciting proposition. Kaufman has already released one of this year’s finest records to date – Bonny Light Horseman – while Barrick’s most recent outputs have been as a recording and touring member of Fleet Foxes. But can Kaufman and Barrick pull Banks away from the sound and feel that has come to define him?
Opening song, Bad Feeling, certainly suggests so. Spidery guitars weave their way atop a gentle, stuttering ambience that is new ground for the singer, and perfectly marries with his effortless, unhurried baritone – leaving him comfortable in his new surroundings. Lyrically, it is the first of a number of tracks that hint towards the theme of anxiety, before it opens up with unexpected saxophone flourishes – and lands somewhere closer to sounding like Kaufman’s work with The National on Sleep Well Beast.
The first five tracks are undoubtedly the best works on Muzz – and it is the distinction from Interpol that makes them so. Evergreen is experimental in feel. Processed backing vocals, slide guitars and blips and bleeps back Banks’ voice, which threatens to be unleashed, but is melodically strong enough that he doesn’t need to. Red Western Sky is a little more up tempo, and again really suits Banks’ voice, which is up front and centre. The most dreamy cut here, Patchouli, is the best example of Kaufman’s ear for arrangement and the layering of instrumentation – its musical interludes carrying a cinematic spaciousness. And while nothing here gives Muzz a context in terms of time and space like Banks’ work with Interpol did to their beloved NYC, Everything Like It Used To Be finds the songwriter under a nameless sky on his most immediate melody on the record.
The album does seem to lose its focus at the half way point; the arrangements become that bit less interesting, and the melodic directions more predictable. Ironically, it is single, Knuckleduster‘s unncecessary over exertion of energy that feels like filler. But final track, Trinidad, which most closely reminds of the gentler side of Lisbon or Heaven by Barrick’s former band, The Walkmen, could definitely have benefited from running on and on, rather than falling to an untimely demise.
Muzz most definitely feels like a band – rather than a one off project – and the friendship between Kaufman and Banks, which runs back to them being kids, will hopefully hold the three piece together. And although it’s this debut is not a total success, it definitely has brought out a side of Paul Banks that we perhaps always hoped we’d get to see, but maybe felt like we never would.