This is Julian Plenti’s debut, but he’s no newcomer. Julian Plenti is the stage name of Paul Banks, lead singer for Interpol, and for his first solo album he’s turned up some old material: “Girl on the Sporting News,” “On the Esplanade,” “Fly as You Might,” and “Fun that We Have” date back to the pre-Interpol years when Banks/Plenti would play acoustic sets at anti-folk hangouts in downtown New York.
The persona of Julian Plenti was resuscitated by the music software Logic Pro, which allowed Banks to rework old songs and provide instrumentation beyond guitar and vocals. This process sparked more songs made with the same method, and new-toy giddiness led to some occasionally unfortunate muddling. (Take “Girl on the Sporting News” as an example, an old Julian Plenti song now dressed up with some stray electronic buzzes and strings for dramatic effect.)
Despite the stage name, Julian Plenti Is…Skyscraper can only be seen through the lens of Banks’s work in Interpol, and several songs — notably “Fun that We Have” and “Games for Days” — whose angular guitars and precise rhythms give them more than a family resemblance to Interpol. They measure up well to anything on Our Love to Admire, but Banks didn’t need solo work or an alternate persona to explore these ideas. More interesting are the songs that depart from the Interpol template, even if only partially. The brightest and most upbeat song on the album, “Unwind,” swaps bass and guitar for keyboards and trumpet but retains a verse-chorus-verse structure. The intros to “Only if You Run” and “On the Esplanade” are imprecise and basically extraneous — exactly the sort of thing that Interpol has mercilessly excised from its music. It also points to the expansive and unfinished quality on the most successful songs on the album.
If Interpol’s music is like a marvel of Scandinavian engineering, with pieces both interlocking and adjustable for maximum efficiency in minimum space, Julian Plenti is like a homemade curio cabinet, with room for spoken-word samples, meandering guitar plucking, keyboard plinkings, offhand electronic beeps, and some strings. In housing these curiosities Plenti risks self-indulgence, and he intermittently gives off the whiff of an eccentric neighbor absentmindedly waving you into his house to show you his collection of antique typewriters. However, at its best, such as on the droning “Skyscraper” and the guitar-picking “On the Esplanade,” the world-weary brooding of Julian Plenti, speckled with allusions to Europe, calls to mind Leonard Cohen.
These songs are mood pieces built on a simple melody that serves as a pretext for the vocals and other sounds. The melody could repeat indefinitely as strings and piano enter, crescendo without climax, and then disappear. They’re Interpol songs that never reach the part when the guitars kick in. The finale, “H,” even leaves out Banks’s voice in favor of highly modulated vocals, ambient sounds, and tambourine.
Skyscraper is an experiment. It’s a guy with new software applying it to the first thing at hand: some old songs he used to play. It’s a member of a rock band that plays tightly controlled music stretching his compositional abilities to new instruments and more subtle arrangements. They’re not all successes. Julian Plenti can push his music into interesting if somewhat twee directions, but Paul Banks should keep his day job with Interpol.