2010 / Music

Review: The National’s ‘High Violet’ Makes Case For Rock Greatness

Brooklyn Indie-Rockers Release Fifth Album

The forces of revolution transforming the music world want to shout it from the top of the blogosphere: the long-playing album is officially dead.

Photo: 4AD

Photo: 4AD

As these multitasking, hyper-connected upstarts are keen to point out, doubters and old foggies need only see what the digital masses are doing and what the music industry’s quarterly reports are documenting. Namely, that fewer and fewer people are buying music on a chunk of plastic anymore. They argue that records are usually just collections of one or two hits and a bunch of leftovers. They say we’re witnessing a shift back to single songs as the primary commodity in the pop universe and as a result, the Twitter-ification of the musical experience itself. In their minds, listening is now short, filler-free and largely ephemeral few minutes and then we’re on to other activities.

And yet, art doesn’t always work the way pundits say it will. There are records that have plenty of ballast, no doubt. But, just when the old world seems to have vanished beneath the waves of history, a band like the National comes along and releases a album with the characteristics and quality to make us question the logic of this dying paradigm. The Brooklyn-based group’s “High Violet” fulfills the best promises of the analog-era long players, but keeps the music squarely in a modern rock context. Everyone, it’s time to get your headphones on!

If listeners are looking for the great single, “High Violet” isn’t the album they want. IPod/iPhone advocates would be better to go back to the driving, kick-drum smack of “Mistaken For Strangers” off of 2007’s “Boxer” if they’re making a mix-and-match playlist. Instead, the National reconvene an old-school concept too often besmirched by rock-star arrogance: the sonic journey. The quintet’s too-cool, understated, passionate anthems don’t transport the listeners as much as they simply hang together to form a kind of aural environment to allow deeper recognition, reflection and expression. It’s nearly an outdated idea: “High Violet” is the kind of record that demands an hour’s attention. But unlike so many others, this one deserves it.

That the National would come out as a champion of traditional rock values might not be a shocker. Formed in Cincinnati and consisting of Leonard Cohen-voiced singer Matt Berninger and the brothers Dessner and Devendorf, the group is now based in indie-rock Shangri-la of Brooklyn, N.Y. And in a local scene peopled by an eclectic array of formerly underground rock acts like Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV on the Radio, the workmen-like National were perhaps the most conventional in instrumentation and temperament.

However, few might have anticipated the band’s trajectory as they evolved from the young, sloppy romantics of their early discs, particularly the “Cherry Tree” EP, to the low-fi, mathematical prettiness of “Alligator” to the drawl poetics, hard-driving rhythms and dark atmospherics that the group triumphed with on “Boxer.” Now, the National has further refined its compositional skills, smartly cutting back the artsy pretense, in favor of melodies of grace and galvanizing strength.

That increasing confidence is audible on the disc’s first track, “Terrible Love,” whose demo-ish qualities soon fade as its glories flower. The warm, fluttering hum of skuzzy guitar hover and entice a listener’s ears as first a quiet piano refrain and then a propulsive downbeat pull them deeper and deeper into this nightlife world. To be honest, it sounds like a Velvet Underground rehearsal tape and such comparisons don’t do either a disservice. Berringer’s deep voice is a monotone rich with meaning — simultaneously saying but not saying — oblique things about love, honesty and in the process, nearly screaming everything that can be said about repressed masculinity. The restraint builds exquisitely until the Smiths-style guitar waves, martial drumming and cooing background vocals blend together behind Berringer’s cryptic calls and rush past the erected barricades.

Past the gates, listeners are now in the National’s realm of nighttime cruising, unspoken bonding and barroom romance conducted by literary coffeehouse exiles. Even when the band briefly reveals its poppier sensibilities — as it does on “Anyone’s Ghost” — the group’s focus is trained on intellectual discourse as much as it is on impressing modern-rock radio programmers. A morose blend of acoustic guitar, gnarly, shifty electric guitar and strings are rescued from goth territory because of the extraordinarily peppy rhythm that drummer Bryan Devendorf slaps out. Meanwhile, Berringer’s deadpan has that rare and unexpected quality of authenticity that allows him to deliver a line as brainy bohemian as “walk through the Manhattan valleys of the dead” without sparking any snickers.

All of this leads to an appreciation that this is a band zeroing in on profound meaning through both shading and understated-ness. That the quintet’s obsession with delicate melodic touches and character-rich sonics are so subtle that a brief listen might render a song’s depth and sophistication as nearly invisible. But, what’s hard to miss on the songs off “High Violet” is that sense of beguiling, sport-coat-suited mystery each possesses and can keep fans engaged. Each play leads to a discovery that Berringer’s muttered wisdom has more to offer every pass.

This can be heard best when Berringer and crew look for the anthemic knockout blow. On the combination of “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Lemonworld,” the band initially uses heavy rock syncopation to pull listeners into a whirlwind of mixed-meaning lyrical imagery, tender string/horn accompaniment and fuzzy guitar chimes. The first song is a tribute to their home state, the musical huckster life and the loves left behind. “Lemondworld,” however, is a love song that slowly reveals an unexpected degree of loathing of those the narrator is enamored of. The track has a more distinct narrative that skewers the frivolous among us, presented slowly through almost off-hand comments. The song is built on a broad but dour guitar strum counterpoised against Devendorf’s complicated drum pattern. String-leaden “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” is a gorgeous sing-along ballad that should help the band seal the deal in the country’s larger ballrooms and theaters over the next few months.

In the end, this is where “High Violet” should take the band as they promote this. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to see the National inching up to top-of-the-bill status on either Lollapalooza or Coachella’s main stages next year (the band is among the second tier of groups playing on Lollapalooza this summer). This is still something of a paradox as the National isn’t necessarily a band who fans would wear a T-shirt to show their support. Not only is the group still too anonymous, but they and their fans a’re too smart, too hip and maybe too uptight to admit that they like to rawk in between skimming Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski.

And yet, the National’s “High Violet” offers a challenge that can’t be ignored. Another album of Springsteen-ian songs, ponderous meanings and rich sonic textures command a response from the ever-fickle public. “High Violet” might not overturn the commercial, cultural and technological forces at work in the music world, but it gives a terrific reason to question what could be won and loss in the change of habits.

“High Violet” presents what could be loss as a chance to spend another stellar night out with the most learned, wallflower-ish drinking buddy you’ve ever wanted — set to kicking rock music. It’s reason enough to keep your turntable just in case.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2010 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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