Saturday, June 26, 2010

Review: The National - High Violet

Of all the cliche phrases that are tossed about by music reviewers, the term "grower" is perhaps the most egregious. It's usually used to describe an album that may not be immediately gratifying; instead requiring repeated listens to bloom in ones eardrum. These albums are often initially dismissed as "boring", until the offending party comes to their senses. The problem with the term "grower" is that EVERY album is a grower. With the exception of a Pokerface, I can't think of any song that I instantly embraced. Even my favorite songs were more intriguing than invigorating on the outset. In reality, the term grower is not used to describe a boring record, but instead one of daunting complexity. It's only natural of course, as people prefer simple things.

Like Wilco before them, The National are critical darlings that do little to inspire excitement in indie circles. Consistent and agreeable. Music's answer to meatloaf. Unfairly, I too have played a part in underestimating the Brooklyn via Cincinnati band. I should know better. I listened to 2007's Boxer over and over again when it came out, unable to see what distinguished it from thousands of bands doing the exact same thing. It wasn't until late that summer that the album had taken root. The beauty and nuance that I had missed or simply dismissed became integral to the record and the crucial difference between other bands of their ilk. I nearly made the same mistake with High Violet. Shame on me.

Listening to High Violet is a solitary experience. It's filled with soft anecdotes, bitter words and keen observations from frontman Matt Berninger. The cadence and depth of his baritone sound like the last snippets of coherence from after a long night of drinking. Tired, measured and introspective, the intimacy of his voice adds gravity to the lyrics. I never once wondered if he really swam in that fountain, or if his kids were really sick in "Conversation 16". Maybe it's because the details were mundane, but they are still vivid and believable.

What makes The National such a distinctive band is not Berninger's voice or the words he says. The National live an die by the snappy lead of drummer Bryan Devendorf. Every song is anchored by his confident beats, controlling the tempo and pacing like a virtuoso. Few bands use a set of drums as effectively as The National. Additionally, much of the nuance springs from interesting production choices, the edginess of which aren't apparent until you imagine the songs with them. The buzzy strums and string accompaniment on "Terrible Love" compliment each other perfectly, a similar technique of whirring, cycling static opens "Little Faith" later. "Bloodbuzz Ohio" unnerves with rising strings, trumpets, fuzzy guitars and a healthy dose of nostalgia. It feels familiar but wholly unique, which is where the best music comes from.

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