Sunday, April 8, 2007

Honorable Mention: The National

Sometimes I make hasty decisions. I instantly disliked the National when I first heard them 2 years ago. The album I was listening to was their second album, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. As of 2007, I'm still not too crazy about that album, some exceptions being the strong opener "Cardinal Song" & the lovely closer "Lucky You," but, honestly, everything in the middle of that to me is still kinda dull. Last year I was given Alligator and I pretty much had the same reaction that I did for the previous album, this time, however, with one major exception:"Mr. November." It was the only song of theirs I listened to more than one last year and it's still a gem due to its kick and strong rhythm which is something that I felt was lacking with the National prior to this. Yes, yes I know. It's "sadcore." It's not supposed to be fast or rock out very hard. Taking a lesson from post-punk legends Joy Division or math rock pioneers Slint, the so-called "sadcore" movement turned their angst inward and repressed their rage, everything Mr. Freud told us not to do. Joy Division and Slint were two bands that excelled at contrasting their moments of quiet with their moments of unexpected rage in which both the IDs of both bands erupted with deafening sound, only to quiet themselves as quickly as they began leaving the listener anticipating the passing of the eye of the storm.

The National did not do this for me on their 2nd album which left me disappointed. With Alligator, they changed my mind and made me eat my words after a second listen. "Mr. November" being a great example, but also on songs like "Abel" which is probably the hardest song on the album. Even the ballads, "Karen" & "Secret Meeting," despite their seemingly gentle sound, have an underlying tense mood which comes through far stronger than before. Admittedly, I have not heard their debut, which is supposed to be a strong one, but after warming up to Alligator and listening to the new album, Boxer, I'm now very curious. Boxer already has some worthy repeat listens. The opener (these guys are always good at opening an album) "Fake Empire" beckons the listener with its morose, but not cold, piano lick and singer and lyricist Matt Berniger's delivery. Especially on a track like "Fake Empire," do we further see the National only getting better at building up their quiet storm and this time we are given something more uplifting made evident by the song's marvelous use of horns. In addition to "Fake Empire," "Mistaken for Strangers," "Slow Show," and "Apartment Story" are all instant stand outs.

The National have gotten comparisons to many bands, Joy Division being one of them, but also U2, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. If they have to emulate someone, for God's sake, I hope they go along the Waits/Cohen path. Coldplay and the Killers may have made a career copying U2 with their passionate and sensitive anthems and Chris Martin and Brandon Flowers look like they are having fun playing make believe as Bono. Well, that seems to be the way the indie rock wind is blowing these days. Even my beloved Arcade Fire look like they have ambitions to say "big things" with a "big sound." Not surprising, the Arcade Fire opened for U2 toward the later half of their 2005 tour. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy U2...up to 1991. After that, it gets spotty, real spotty ("Discotechque" warrants as a criminal act.) My annoyance comes from the fact that I don't really like how guitars are tuned these days. So many bands have chosen to sound like U2 which might make them fans of the arena circuit but, in this critic's opinion, squander any originality they had to begin with (I'm looking in your direction Bloc Party. This is your final warning!) Please, let U2 be U2, and for that matter, let U2 continue their frustrating descent into adult contemporary on their own. Frankly, I hear the Waits/Cohen influence more with the National. Matt Berniger's voice is low enough to make him sound like Cohen's bastard son and his lyrics echo Waits affinity for losers and other dregs of society; not to mention that the actual performance is sung with enough self-deprecation reminiscent only of Warren Zevon. I am now a lot more excited to see them on Memorial Day than before. Keep it up, lads.

-The National performing "Mr. November" March 30, 2006

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