Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The National 'High Violet' Review - Originally Posted on Pop Tarts Suck Toasted

Vanilla as a flavor(and as a euphemism for a certain taste of art or personality) is underrated. There is something about clean, solid, reliable, singular taste that often is far more satisfying than all the bells, whistles, hyphens and sprinkles you can add to a sound or a sundae. Many people have found the National with their steady tempos and low melodic range to be too vanilla(or in the case of our editor often outright boring). I however have always marveled at their particular flavor of indie rock.

This is plain guy rock that understands the working class frankness of Springsteen and the baroque charm of early R.E.M. It takes the urban clatter and conversational vocals of the Velvet Underground an combines it with the austere layered arrangements of big league postmillennial indie(re: Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens). If this is vanilla it is because the National have taken the sums of their parts and made it into a solid flavorful whole that is as singular a sound as any American rock band has hit on in decades.

High Violet has all the things you expect from the National, really the only things you expect, and somehow is still able to bowl over expectations. Matt Beringer still mopes and smirks at the nuances and nuisances of modern relationships and dead end jobs. (A great charade considering Boxer has sold 350k copies and he's allegedly happily married.) The band uses their instruments as nuch for atmosphere as for melody and rhythm.

While the steady build of fans and press coverage assures that this will be the National's biggest album yet, it is also worth noting that the record also owns more of it's 4AD pedigree than any of their previous records. "Anyone's Ghost" plucks along with a surprising post-punky bounce. "Terrible Love" is practically drowning in spacey noise; the Cocteau Twins would be proud. Almost all of the songs hint at the broken everyman melodrama that the Red Housepainters once traded in(but then that's nothing new). The seeping influence of minimal composers and noise sculptors is obvious and acts, to keep the Springsteen comparison going, much the way Phil Spector's Wall of Sound did for the Boss. It deepens the frank simple sons making them just the right balance of epic and ghostly.

For me the album highlight is "Lemonworld" a song that could have felt like a miserable dirge but ends up feeling sweet and breezy(if a bit somber). The drums find a place between groove and texture, the guitars chime making the subtle melodic shift between the verse and chorus seem nearly like a genuine pop moment. The lyrics veer from cryptic to weirdly specific, and are ultimately as relatable or inscrutable as you choose to hear them.

The sound of the National is at first hard to parse. Rock bands often wear a new sound or idea like flair on their coats, or feather boas. It's ornamental and ultimately superficial. Everything the National does has been puréed so that it can pass muster in the tight frame of "what the National do." The results are most definitely not boring, they are in fact one of the tightest most original sounds in modern rock. High Violet is their current high water mark and my current pick for the best album I've heard all year. Get it, enjoy it with some Häagen-Dazs.

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