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The Paranoid Style blends rock with literary flair with 'The Interrogator'

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. When it comes to rock music with literary flair, rock critic Ken Tucker thinks you can't do much better than the band called The Paranoid Style. They're a Washington, D.C.-based group that's been making music since 2012, led by songwriter and lead singer Elizabeth Nelson. She's also a music critic who's been published in places like The New Yorker and The New York Times. The Paranoid Style's new album is called "The Interrogator." Here's Ken's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST NIGHT IN CHICKENTOWN")

THE PARANOID STYLE: (Singing) From the last of the ninth to the trundling haze to the genie in tights, the experimental phase. I don't stop at lights. I don't sleep for days. I've been seeing the sights. Baby, I'm amazed - last night in Chickentown.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The signature sound of The Paranoid Style is the voice of songwriter Elizabeth Nelson - a sure, firm tone clearly enunciating the cascade of words that fill out every lyric. Most often half-sung, half-spoken, Nelson's declarative sentences reveal themselves to be artfully composed verse packed with wordplay, jokes and an undercurrent of serious dread.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARE YOU LOATHSOME TONIGHT?")

THE PARANOID STYLE: (Singing) I'm struck at the beating heart of another bad occasion I can't ignore. And I can't parse the slow disintegration. Savoy truffles finely bake minds. Media kerfuffles - are you loathsome tonight? The outside is dim. The silhouettes are slithering. Everything you loved has grown hidebound and withering. Did you fight out of passion? Or was it just obligation? Believe me. I know how to vouchsafe a nation - lots of incidents, lots of situations. One has its doubts about various vacations. Time grows short, and time is tight. One last look - are you loathsome tonight? Are you loathsome tonight?

TUCKER: That's "Are You Loathsome Tonight?" And, yes, this band is indeed named after Richard Hofstadter's 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style In American Politics." I suppose you could call The Paranoid Style a cult band consisting of people who read books and listen to a lot of music that wasn't just recorded in the previous year. This is the band's second album in a row that namechecks P.G. Wodehouse, now with the added bonus mention of another great humorist, S.J. Perelman. It's a wonder she didn't call the song "P.G. And S.J." The interrogator also continues a mini tradition of contorting other artists song titles. On their last album, the band inverted The Eagles to give us "The Worst Of My Love." On the new one, they take Nick Lowe's title "I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass" and offer a more political alternative, "I Love The Sound Of Structured Class."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE THE SOUND OF STRUCTURED CLASS")

THE PARANOID STYLE: (Singing) Sitting on the front porch, still waiting on the lifeline from the kind of folks who share opinions like mine. I have spent time in education. I have spent time in jail. I've drunk from the river basin. I have skied in Vail. Time in capsules, Vitamin C. Everybody knows this is nowhere but me. Everyone knows this is Valhalla or bust, an unliving will and a living mistrust. Sympathy for the devil is the last of your concerns. Bow down to your level, and attend to your burns. I have seen strong men crying out for help. I have pulled books from a very high shelf. The next time you call me, make sure it's important - withering on the vine, living by appointment. Everyone's outnumbered, and no one has a past. I love the sound of structured class.

TUCKER: All of this garrulousness could easily become coy and tiresome, but Nelson's remarkable range of references keep everything buzzing along with both vigor and rigor. And, oh, yeah, there's the music. This is The Paranoid Style's most tuneful album to date, at least in part because of its new lead guitarist, Peter Holsapple, co-founder of the great pop rock band The dB's. Nelson, Holsapple and the rest of the band, including Nelson's guitarist husband Timothy Bracy, hit a peak of pleasure with the guitar solo in the middle of a song called "The Ballad Of Pertinent Information."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BALLAD OF PERTINENT INFORMATION")

THE PARANOID STYLE: (Singing) Burned in the fire, hung in a cell there are oh so many dudes who think they get me so well. Turn it on. I got some things you'll want to see. Turn it on - a mire of ecstasy. Turn it on. I've tampered with the occasional witness. Turn it on. I'm not in the pleasure business. Turn it on. I want access to everything - turn it on - from the dawn of man to the final gathering. Turn it on. I like the fact that you're so tall. Turn it on. I like the way you hold a stone. Turn it on.

TUCKER: Elizabeth Nelson says on another song here, something about rock 'n' roll makes me defensive, and you could hear much of "The Interrogator" as an album-length justification for believing that an artist can put anything she thinks about, believes in and desires into the lyric and melody of a three-minute rock song without sacrificing any degree of complexity or emotion. To listen to Nelson and The Paranoid Style work out such an argument over the course of 13 compositions is what makes spending a lot of time with this album so rewarding.

MOSLEY: Ken Tucker reviewed the album "The Interrogator" by The Paranoid Style. To keep up with what's on the show and to get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @NPRFreshAir. FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STYLES MAKE FIGHTS")

THE PARANOID STYLE: (Singing) Saw you there with long, blonde hair, saw you bracing in the middle of the night. Never thought I'd make it to the vice chair - mismatch on the page. Your styles made fights. I would punch you between the eyes. I would punch you in the illegal zone. I will haunt you day and night to bring you my love. Styles make fights. Styles make fights like the whale and martini (ph). Styles make fights like the Moosy-loosalini (ph). Styles make fights that can't left hand win, praying for oblivion. From the latest craze to the latest persecution, so many things that Pitchfork got wrong. Every chance they choose adds up in disillusion and take (inaudible) rights. Styles make fights. By the crook of the neck and the useless apartment, the last thing you bet on was less than one. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ken Tucker
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.