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Show Review: The National [House of Vans; Chicago; 10/30/17]

On an exceptionally chilly Monday night on the Near West Side of Chicago, a few hundred people gathered at House of Vans for a remarkably intimate set from The National. The band had flown into town from Europe for a special performance at the Obama Foundation Summit, but arrived a couple days early to give fans an extra special treat. Tickets to the show were being given out for free through an online lottery, and considering the 500 person capacity of the venue, it’s safe to assume that a lot more people entered than actually won. Those with luck on their side were treated to an engrossing and often aggressive performance that skewed towards the dark and political.

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Lollapalooza 2013: Saturday Recap


After what was a pleasant and somewhat inspiring first day of Lollapalooza, Saturday was supposed to be the “big one.” When single day tickets went on sale a few months ago, Saturday was the first to sell out, and almost immediately. What was its biggest selling point? Mumford & Sons, probably. And maybe a little help from The Lumineers. I had a feeling the crowds were going to be huge for both bands, and I only moderately like them, so naturally I avoided going anywhere near that stage. I felt almost rewarded as a result. Of course the entire day was rewarding, even though I got a later start than I was hoping for or anticipated. The extra time I took to sleep in really helped me make it through the day, I think. As a reminder, though service is all but nonexistent in Grant Park this weekend, I am doing my best to live tweet about every act that I see. If I don’t do it during the day, I catch up at the end of the night. Just so you know for reference purposes. Anyways, here’s a short bit about the things I saw on Saturday.

My day started with Charles Bradley. He’s widely regarded as a soul legend, and his set showed that in spades. I could hear the horns blaring and his powerful wail well outside the walls of Grant Park, and for a minute I thought I’d accidentally stumbled into Chicago’s world famous Blues Fest instead. Even though he’s getting up there in age, Bradley commanded the crowd with his strong presence and even broke out a dance move or two. It may be a long way from his early days as a James Brown impersonator, but at some point in time there will hopefully be a Charles Bradley impersonator just making his way up the ladder to legendary status as well.

As I started to walk across the field to the stage just behind me for Matt & Kim, I ran into problems. Specifically, I hit a wall of people. The crowd stretched back extremely far at the Petrillo stage, so far that I couldn’t see the stage from my vantage point and couldn’t hear the band too well either. Whenever I run into that situation, as I did with Imagine Dragons on Friday, I figure there’s no point in watching or listening if I can’t watch and can barely listen. So I wandered over to Ellie Goulding’s stage about 30 minutes before her set was scheduled to start. I could kind of hear Matt & Kim from there, and enjoyed renditions of “Cameras” and “Let’s Go”, mixed with bits and pieces of some interesting and odd covers.

I think Ellie Goulding is one of the most talented mainstream pop acts today, and her energetic set had the huge crowd going totally nuts. I was packed in tighter than any other spot I’ve been in all weekend, and everyone around me was jumping up and down, singing along, clapping, and other things you do at an overly enthusiastic pop show. For her part, Goulding kept the mood light and upbeat, and she certainly sounded great. She covered Elton John’s “Your Song” at one point, and it actually felt both earnest and earned.

I’ve seen Unknown Mortal Orchestra one time before, and it was an okay set. At a certain point last time I thought it started to wear thin and get a little boring, so my expectations were lower when venturing in for a second round. The crowd turned out to be one of the lighter ones of the day, primarily because there was a lot going on at all the other stages. But the band made the most of their time and actually impressed me with a bouncy, pleasant and rather psychedelic set that was really strong on technical chops. Maybe it’s the fact that they released their second album and the new songs are working better for me, or playing a lot more live shows has made them a much stronger band overall, but whatever it is it’s working. The extended outro to “Ffunny Ffrends” featured a rather great guitar solo from frontman Ruban Nielson, and left the crowd in a great mood.

A few records and a few hundred live performances under their belts, Foals know exactly what they’re doing, and how to achieve results with a crowd. Their set builds slowly and steadily, an energetic instrumental one minute, a ballad with a soaring chorus the next, and a heavy rock cut after that. They covered all their bases, and though they dispatched one of their best songs “My Number” early on in their set (which drew a great dance party in the crowd), it was “Inhaler” that finally was the knockout punch. It was the perfect introduction to Foals if you’re not very familiar with their music, or had never seen them live before. The list of new converts at that show has to be pretty huge.

This was the fifth or sixth time I’ve seen The National perform live, and with each new experience I’m treated to what feels like an improved version of the band I saw the previous time. At this point I think they’ve been around long enough and know each other well enough to truly click on stage, even in a festival setting that doesn’t work as well with their particular brand of nuance. Frontman Matt Berninger is certainly working the stage a lot more, breaking away from his perpetual stance behind a mic stand to hang out on the sides for a few minutes. Some tricks, like Berninger running into the crowd during “Mr. November,” are long-time band staples, but they’re highlights that continue to thrill, so why stop? The new material sounds great, and the crowd was very receptive through it all. Certainly one of the day’s highlights.

After all the turmoil that hit the scheduling at The Grove stage on Saturday, what with Azealia Banks being forced to cancel due to vocal chord problems and Death Grips refusing to show up for whatever reason, the band Haim got either a really good or a really bad deal depending on how you look at it. The printed version of the schedule has them going on stage around 3:30 up against Matt & Kim, Court Yard Hounds and Local Natives. Not exactly bad bands to be up against. Their actual set time wound up being at 7:15, which was more prime time, but up against Kendrick Lamar and The Lumineers. So it wasn’t too surprising that the crowd for Haim wasn’t massive, though it was pretty decent sized overall. The three sisters played material off their EP and some new songs from their forthcoming debut album. Overall their set was a whole lot of fun, that includes the highly amusing sisterly stage banter. All of them also proved to be incredibly talented musicians, and a couple of small jam sessions they had included some face-melting guitar solos and wild bass work. I saw the band perform again at an aftershow a few hours later, and they were even better. I’ll have a report on that later. Be on the lookout, Haim is going to be huge.

With the sea of people over at Mumford & Sons, it was nice to simply stroll up to a close spot for The Postal Service. As Ben Gibbard had said in a tweet earlier in the day, their Lollapalooza set and their subsequent Sunday night aftershow would be their final two shows ever, so in my logic, why would you miss that. It helps I love their one record Give Up to the point where I’ve got every lyric memorized. A lot of people do, apparently, because the entire set was like one massive sing-along. The only time the crowd stopped singing was when they played some of the b-sides and previously unreleased material that appeared on the deluxe 10th anniversary reissue of the album. Overall the arrangements were very similar to what they sounded like on record, though they were made a little more buoyant and full at times which was nice. There were extended versions of some hits, particularly “Such Great Heights” and the closer “Brand New Colony.” A cover of Beat Happening’s “Our Secret” was a nice additional treat. Jenny Lewis was in many ways a jack of all trades during the show, playing a number of different instruments in addition to her supporting vocals role. Gibbard was his typical self, upbeat and honest, and he seemed to really appreciate how much this band and their one record means to so many people. This might be the official end to The Postal Service, but I can’t express how happy it made me to finally see it performed live. I’ll take them over Mumford & Sons any day of the week.

Album Review: Sharon Van Etten – Tramp [Jagjaguwar]



The first time I saw and heard Sharon Van Etten was at the 2010 Pitchfork Music Festival, in which she had the “honor” of being the first artist to perform that year. The issue of course is that at 3PM on a Friday afternoon, most attendees were either still at work or simply hadn’t made their way past the front gates yet. In other words, it made for one of the most sparsely attended sets of the weekend. Those that were there in time though were treated to one of the most endearing sets of the 3-day fest and a proper introduction to a major new singer-songwriter talent. Her first proper album Epic had not yet been released, and she had no backing band, so the reality of it was one woman playing a bunch of songs nobody had heard before to a crowd of about 100 people. And you know what? You could barely hear a sound other than what was coming out of the speakers. That’s not because they were loud, but because everyone was quiet and attentive and completely taken in by a truly lone wolf performance. In the middle of it, one of the strings on her guitar broke, and she didn’t have a replacement, so Modest Mouse (headlining that night) lent her one of theirs. Effortlessly charming was a good way to describe it, and in some ways that set suggested the birth of a star. Epic would go on to critical praise and moderate success, and Van Etten made a whole lot of important friends thanks in no small part to incessant touring.

The National’s Aaron Dessner was one of Sharon Van Etten’s earliest supporters, and was so swayed by the Epic track “Love More” that he performed a cover of it at the 2010 MusicNow Festival with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. That developed into a friendship and a working collaboration, as Dessner produced Van Etten’s new record Tramp. The recording sessions were sporadic over a year, scheduled between touring responsibilities for the both of them. Van Etten also found herself courted by a record label or two, eventually choosing to sign with indie superlabel Jagjaguwar, which is a strong match to her style of music and increased visibility. She chose to title her new album Tramp as a comment on the transient lifestyle she’s been leading the last couple years. Touring is one aspect of it, but she’s also not had a permanent residence in awhile, instead bouncing from couch to couch, friend to friend and sublet to sublet when she needs to stay anywhere for longer than a day or two. As she puts it, the decision ultimately came down to either paying rent on an apartment, or keeping her backing band. Things have been better in recent months however, and she’s been able to find a place in Brooklyn to call home even as she prepares to hit the road for another few months of touring in support of the album.

Things are also getting better on record as well, as Tramp sees Van Etten truly growing out her voice and overall sound into a much stronger and more collaborative effort overall. For the first time, she truly sounds comfortable in her own skin, as if she just needed the right people around her to get all the pieces perfectly in place. She’s been building towards such a sonic revelation across her previous two releases, and now that she’s finally reached that healthy place seems more determined than ever to make it count for something. Opening track “Warsaw” holds a remarkably dark bounce to it, the main electric guitar chords bearing a surprisingly strong resemblance to some of the more angular approaches used by Nirvana in reworking some of their songs for the Unplugged record. Perhaps the song that best echoes Van Etten’s growth is first single “Serpents”, which is a beast of a composition that intertwines multiple guitar parts, militaristic drumming from Matt Barrick of The Walkmen, and full-on overdubbed vocal harmonies. It’s beautiful and sad, but has serious muscle to it, a display of aggression that was only been hinted at up until that point. Not everything on the album is so intricately constructed and energetic though. The balladry of “Kevin’s” comes soberingly close to the sparse solo guitar and vocal of Van Etten’s earlier material, as does the late album drama of “Ask”. Other songs like “All I Can” and “I’m Wrong” take a more subtle approach and build steadily over their duration. The bright energy and use of ukulele on “Leonard” brings a decidedly Beirut-esque feel to the track, and it’s almost a disappointment when a horn section doesn’t emerge to buttress the melody. But speaking of Beirut, Zach Condon does make a guest appearance on the equally ukulele driven “We Are Fine”, a song about overcoming social anxiety. The track’s positive message is that much more engaging and beautiful thanks to Condon’s backing harmonies and solo vocal on a verse. Additional contributions come from Julianna Barwick and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, among others, and each does a superb job whether you notice their presence or not.

At the core of Tramp are Van Etten’s lyrics, the topics of which haven’t really changed much since her earliest days. Romance tends to be her favorite vice, and the highs and mostly lows of relationships is something she continues to explore. On “Give Out” she bluntly sings, “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city/or why I’ll need to leave.” Yet sometimes she takes the blame for a failed relationship herself, as on “Leonard” when she musters up the courage to say, “I am bad at loving you.” One thing you’re almost guaranteed with any Sharon Van Etten record is that she’ll be very frank and up front about her thoughts and emotions. It’s just nice at times to not have to wade through symbols and extraneous wordplay while trying to decipher the songwriter’s true intentions. And Sad though many of the sentiments might be, often made sadder by the heartbreak evident in Van Etten’s voice, this album isn’t about the destruction of relationships. It’s actually about the lessons we learn in the aftermath of those tragic moments. “I want my scars to help and heal,” she confesses on “All I Can”, the implication being that the wounds of past loves will hopefully assist in finding someone new and better. Couple that with a song like “We Are Fine” and the theme becomes moving on and forward. Funny, because Van Etten is not only doing that lyrically but sonically as well, and the combination makes for her finest record to date. She’s come quite a long way from just a couple years ago playing unreleased music all alone on a festival stage. To say she’s earned the success that continues to come her way would be quite an understatement.

Sharon Van Etten – Serpents

Buy Tramp from Amazon

Show Review: The Arcade Fire + The National [UIC Pavilion; Chicago; 4/25/11]

On a rainy April night, not unlike the few that preceeded it, thousands packed into the UIC Pavilion to witness the third and final show from two of indie rock’s most brilliant stalwarts, The Arcade Fire and The National. Both are out in support of their latest records, The National with their highly acclaimed fifth album “High Violet” and The Arcade Fire with their 2010 Grammy-winning/list-topping third record “The Suburbs”. They’re only playing a select few shows together, basically spanning a couple dates in Missouri, the three in Chicago and one in Indianapolis. It’s an incredibly tough bill to turn down if you love your music, even at the markedly imperfect large venue. Of course the band not only sold out one night in a room that size, but they did it three times in a row, so clearly the demand is there. And better the UIC Pavilion than the even clunkier Allstate Arena or United Center. The first show announced was the Monday night show, which after selling out in a relative heartbeat was then backed up by the Friday and Saturday leading into Easter. Monday never seems to be the “right” day for a show, what with the start of the work week and the general depression that sets in with that. All the rain wasn’t helping either, so there wasn’t quite the electricity in the air you might hope for. The thing about bands is that they don’t exactly have “weekends” or “Mondays”, and if a crowd is not giving them what they need, they’ll either force it out of them or turn in a performance that’s equal with what they’re getting in return. Thankfully both bands seem to do the former, resulting in one of the most exhilarating live shows you’ll find not just on a rainy Monday, but on any day of any week.

This may come as a surprise to nobody, but The National are not the most upbeat band in the world. Songs about failed relationships, political strife and general depression are the norm for them, but they do it with class and style and sharp pop sensibilities, all of which lessen the lyrical pain contained within. Starting their set on Monday night with “Anyone’s Ghost” was perhaps not the most inspired choice. The hook is solid, but it’s a slow burner much like a lot of the band’s material. The standard for many artists is to start strong and draw people in, with most choosing to go with the opening track on their most recent release as it tends to have that same effect. Given that the UIC Pavilion was only a little more than half filled when they started their set though, a fair number of people there were probably fans of The National already, showing up on time to see one of their favorites from the very beginning. You don’t need to sell those people on your band because they’re already sold. Whipping out the “Alligator” classic “Secret Meeting” next, things picked up courtesy of the surging chorus that had singer Matt Berninger screaming by the end – something that you don’t get on the recorded version. In fact, a lot of the songs during The National’s set were brimming with a newfound life and intensity that they haven’t shown often before, evidence of how they’ve grown as a live act in the last few years. Their “hit” “Bloodbuzz Ohio” scored big with the crowd, as did the scream-filled take on “Squalor Victoria”. Arcade Fire’s Richard Parry joined the band on guitar and some backing vocals for “Afraid of Everyone” and “Conversation 16”, which was exciting for some but left a couple brilliant people remarking, “So wait…that guy is in Arcade Fire?”. One of the more random moments in the set was when the band whipped out the “Alligator” b-side “Driver, Surprise Me”, which is not only a challenge to find on record but also to catch a live performance of. Out on a limb, I’d wager about 2-3 people in the entire building knew the song, and the deafening silence in the room was evidence enough of that. The National finished strong though, with a four hit combo that was big on energy and one unplanned moment. The extended outro tacked onto “Fake Empire” was an additional kick in the pants that was earned and exciting. The place was all filled up and naturally went into a frenzy when Win Butler of Arcade Fire came dashing out during “Start A War” to contribute some backing vocals and harmonies. Berninger cracked a smile as Butler exited the stage, commenting, “I thought we said no improvising,” appearing to acknowledge that the appearance wasn’t wholly expected. In the band’s pre-“High Violet” days, “Mr. November” was their standard closing song (in particular to celebrate Barack Obama’s election), bringing energy to spare along with all the screaming promises of “I won’t fuck us over”. This time it was just shy of last, the coveted spot being turned over to “High Violet” opening cut “Terrible Love”. It’s the song they should have started on, but finishing on it was nearly as good. One hour after they took the stage, The National exited triumphant, with the crowd eating out of the palms of their hands and rippling with palpable excitement for The Arcade Fire. It may have been rainy and it may have been a Monday, but the crowd had turned to Saturday and sunny.

The National – Bloodbuzz Ohio
The National – Afraid of Everyone

Buy The National’s “High Violet” from Amazon

One of the more fun things about The Arcade Fire’s current tour is their stage set-up, which features both a classic light-up drive-in movie marquee and a projection screen. Somebody next to me said they didn’t understand how a marquee sign was supposed to relate to the suburbs. Given all the light pollution and the need for an open field, drive-ins theatres were restricted to suburbs and farm towns only, so that’s how the concept makes sense. Prior to their entrance on stage, there were a couple quick “Coming Attractions” that were some old previews for movies where evil comes to the suburbs, otherwise known as bratty, drug-using youths. It was a fun and funny way to put everyone in the mindset for the band’s set, which again dumped the unspoken “start with the first track off your new album” rule but opted instead for the much more energized hit single “Ready to Start”. Not only does the song have a stellar pace, but the title and lyrics tell you plainly that you’d best be fired up and set to get things underway. Like a continued punch to the gut, “Keep the Car Running” hit next and the energy level stayed at a high. People were jumping and singing along at the top of their lungs, giving back to the band exactly what they were shoving out to the masses in the first place. “Haiti” may have been a little more relaxed in its pace, but its tropical vibe mixed with Regine Chassagne’s pixie-like dancing kept the party headed in the right direction. One of the weakest moments on the new record is “Rococo”, primarily for its spiteful lyrics and the sheer ad nauseum number of times the song title is repeated. The dancing stopped and the mood got heavy at the show all of a sudden when that arrived, and it was like the band had shifted into a different gear. What made the live version of “Rococo” essential though was the way that Win Butler sang the song. There was such a raw intensity and spitfire anger pumping out of the speakers that you’ve got to give the guy credit for selling his art. “This is our last night of three in Chicago,” Butler said. “We’re leaving it all on the floor tonight”. The darker side of “The Suburbs” became a theme from that jumping off point, the heart of which was “Suburban War” and “The Suburbs” back-to-back. “Month of May” didn’t lose any of the intensity but picked the energy in the room back up significantly as the band got more heavy metal than at any other time that night.

The third phase of the show seemed to be a return to the “Funeral” days, and a trip through the numbered neighborhoods. As they’ve always done, the band went percussion crazy on “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)”, with everybody that had a free hand banging on whatever they could find with a drumstick. I do kind of miss the days when Richard Parry would strap on a helmet and people would drum on his head, but if they kept doing it the novelty might wear off. The most spirited performances of the evening were naturally saved for last. Win Butler came dangerously close to jumping into the crowd for “We Used to Wait”, but he seemed hesitant to do so after it looked like a few people were trying to grab his microphone cord and wrestle it away from him. They probably wanted to sing, but then again so did everybody. The amount of unsolicited singing and shouting in the crowd was intense, but that’s kind of how you want it to be, a communal experience that bonds everyone, not just the performers. Without a doubt then, the two biggest moments came courtesy of the set-closing “Rebellion (Lies)” and the creme in the encore cookie sandwich known as “Wake Up”. The songs were born to be played in stadiums to masses of people, as evidenced not only in their use via sports advertising, but at the actual shows themselves. Fists in the air, people jumping and shouting in the triumph of the moment. But they weren’t the ones standing tall up on that stage having vanquished a foe. Instead it was the band, and only the band that emerged victorious when it all finished. Like living vicariously through our favorite sports teams though, we’re left with unabashed pride and optimism when it’s all finished, overjoyed that the band we were all rooting for delivered either at or above our expectations. Sprinkle a little “Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains” on top, and serve it up with colorful ribbons and streamers. If you don’t walk away feeling exhilarated after a set like that, you’ve got some serious emotional issues. Weather and moods be damned, The Arcade Fire are your refuge and rock, and you’d be foolish to miss seeing them any chance you get.

The Arcade Fire – Wake Up

Buy The Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” from Amazon

The National – Set List
Anyone’s Ghost
Secret Meeting
Bloodbuzz Ohio
Slow Show
Squalor Victoria
Afraid of Everyone
Conversation 16
Apartment Story
Driver, Surprise Me
Fake Empire
Start A War (w/ Win Butler)
Mr. November
Terrible Love

The Arcade Fire – Set List
Ready to Start
Keep the Car Running
Haiti
Rococo
Empty Room
Suburban War
The Suburbs
Month of May
Neighborhood #2 (Laika)
No Cars Go
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
We Used to Wait
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
Rebellion (Lies)
\\**ENCORE**//
Intervention
Wake Up
Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains

Live Friday: 7-23-10

If you’ve not yet heard it or purchased it or whatever, The National’s latest album “High Violet” should be on your “to do” list in the coming months. It’s an excellent record, one of the best this year has had to offer so far, which is only part of the reason why I’m featuring the band this week on Live Friday. Additionally, The National will be playing Lollapalooza in a couple weeks, and I’m using these live sessions leading up to the festival to help give you some insight into how various bands might perform. The National are, of course, great. This session was recorded a week ago and the band plays 4 songs off of “High Violet”. There’s also an interview available for you to stream below. In it, Bryce Dessner talks a little about the creation of the indie all-star charity album “Dark Was the Night” and his various side projects. Singer Matt Berninger also gets on topic about his writing process and how that relates to the recording of a National album. It’s worth a listen if you really like the band and are interested in hearing about that sort of stuff.

Note: Due to some small hosting issues, you’ll need to download the song “Runaway” via YouSendIt or ZShare. Sorry about that, I’m trying to get the problem fixed.

The National, Live on WXPN 7-16-10:
The National – Bloodbuzz Ohio (Live on WXPN)
The National – Afraid of Everyone (Live on WXPN)
The National – Runaway [YouSendIt] [ZShare]
The National – Terrible Love (Live on WXPN)

Stream the entire interview/performance

Buy “High Violet” from Amazon

Album Review: The National – High Violet [4AD]

The National are what I like to call a “tapeworm” band. Tapeworms start out innocently enough, and you may accidentally ingest one through some piece of improperly treated food. What follows from there is the slow and steady build of a hunger that is seemingly never satisfied. One day you’re eating normally, and the next you’ve shoved three times the normal amount of food into your body and are somehow still craving more. That tapeworm will kill you if you don’t go to the doctor and get properly diagnosed. The National will certainly not kill you if you feed them, but in this analogy their music becomes that slow burn addiction that you can’t seem to get enough of. I first fell victim to this blessing/curse in 2005, when the band’s “Alligator” album showed up on my doorstep. At first, I didn’t give it much regard, finding the band’s somewhat somber songs a little boring and without much payoff. After a handful of listens I still didn’t get it and put the CD on a shelf while I dove into some other new and potentially great music. Fast forward to 6 months later, at which point a friend of mine whose musical opinions I highly respect told me that “Alligator” was a jaw-droppingly great record. It prompted me to pull the album off the shelf where I had left it and give it another try. It took another few times through, but after that, I was hooked like an addict to a drug of choice. I learned every lyric and sang along with every single song. It’s something I still do from time to time.

When “Boxer” came out in 2007, I was salivating with anticipation wondering if it’d be nearly as good as “Alligator” was. Again, I was disappointed. There weren’t any songs on “Boxer” that could match up to the highlights of songs like “Lit Up” and “Abel” and “Mr. November”, and my thinking was that it was a step backwards for the band. This was the snap judgment I made after a half-dozen or so listens. My review of the record at the time echoed that disappointment while remaining what I thought was exceptionally kind towards the band. Fast forward again another 6 months and listening to “Boxer” was nearly a daily event for me as I once again picked up all the lyrics and was singing along with every song. That December it wound up in my Top 5 albums of the year. With The National’s new album “High Violet” coming out today, I’ll now preface it by saying that I still listen to both “Alligator” and “Boxer” on a regular basis, and that’s more than I can say about almost any other band. Both records mean so very much to me, and yet again I’ve been aching with anticipation. As I’m writing this, I’ve listened to the album a half-dozen times.

Now that I’ve recounted my intense history with the last couple National albums, you should have some idea where I’m going to stand in relation to “High Violet”. Learning from my past mistakes, this review isn’t going to say a whole lot worthwhile except to recommend that you give the album awhile to win you over. From all indications, this looks to be another incredible notch in The National’s already strong belt of records, and while I’m still waiting for the obsession to kick in, the first thing I noticed was that “High Violet” didn’t turn me off initially as much as “Alligator” and “Boxer” first did. Of course I’ve also learned my lesson by now and am extremely familiar with what to expect from this band. If I have one gripe about The National, it’s that they have become just a little predictable in terms of their sound, not taking enough sonic risks. You’ve got your slow songs, a string section here, a brass section there, nonsensical lyrics, and anchoring it all is Matt Berninger’s seductive baritone. Ah, but that’s breaking it down into its crudest and simplest form, ignoring the end result, which are songs that though they often wind up sad and depressing, contain a surprising amount of beauty and compassion.

My favorite thing about “High Violet” at this point in time is how delicately crafted it sounds. Every note sounds austere, and when you have friends like Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon assisting you with compositions, that’s the sort of results you get. In many ways it’s a refining of the sound from their last two albums, not so much moving forwards as it is enriching what’s already there. This is especially apparent in the second half of the record, where songs like “England” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” are dramatically orchestrated , probably more than anything they’ve done previously. The sound is also largely built around Matt Berninger’s voice, which is so smooth and distinctive that coupling it with the darker tones of the instrumentals is like the meeting of Jack Daniels and Coke. And one of my absolute favorite things to do with any National album is to dissect the lyrics, because Berninger chooses such interesting words to string together. There’s typically no sense in trying to find any meaning in these songs, but there are themes and ideas you can sniff out through the careful examination of some phrases. “Sorrow” takes the titular emotion and personifies it to display how it permeates our lives. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is at least in part about the financial problems most of us face on a daily basis, while “Lemonworld” goes on the offensive against high society. What “Conversation 16” is about is still somewhat lost on me, though my interpretation is that it’s a song from the perspective of a man worried about his own sanity in a relationship with a girl he clearly cares for. Either way, it’s probably my favorite track on the album so far. Really what’s most interesting to me when talking about the lyrics on not just “High Violet” but any National album, is that despite the challenges of trying to understand these strung together phrases, once you learn all the words, they SEEM like they suddenly make sense. Matt Berninger has gone on record saying that he writes these songs piece by piece, scribbling down words and phrases that he finds interesting, then pasting them together in whatever order he feels works best. That may be a foolish way of doing it, but honestly I find Berninger’s lyrics to be among the best that modern songwriting has to offer, sensible or not.

It should go without question that I am recommending “High Violet”. I’m still very much digesting this album, and it’ll probably be another few months before it fully sinks in as to exactly how good it is to me, but at the very least after a few listens I can confirm that The National continue to make compelling and gorgeous music, even if it is undeniably sad. In other words, nice job boys, keep up the great work. As this band’s popularity continues to increase with each record and people discover the power of this music, I want to encourage people listening to this band for the first time to hold steadfast and not give up on them if you don’t like what you hear right away. Give it some time, hopefully you don’t think the album is too painful to listen to a bunch of times, and I can almost promise you there will be rewards after a little while. That said, don’t be surprised if “High Violet” makes an extremely strong appearance among my favorite records of 2010. No promises, but this band tends to do it for me, and if you let them, hopefully they’ll do the same for you as well.

The National – Bloodbuzz Ohio
The National – Afraid of Everyone

Buy “High Violet” from Amazon