Tuesday, May 15th, 2007
It’s not overreaching to say that Alligator, the 2005 album from The National, was everything I was looking for in a record at the time with its dark, rich poetry, its blend of dignity and desperation, its irresistibly alcohol-soaked nocturnes. A hard act to follow? You might say so. But two years hence, they have and Boxer succeeds in capturing all that was special about Alligator by not trying to do so at all.
While Alligator ranged from heart-breaking delicacy (“Daughters Of The Soho Riots”) to throat-ripping catharsis (“Mr November”), Boxer stays in more of a mid-tempo groove throughout, cultivating and sustaining a distinct, thoughtful mood throughout. It’s as though the protagonist of Alligator – if you’re inclined as I am to view the album as a sort of metaphorical night in the life of a barfly-type, beaten down but defiant – has been able to step into the past to a time when hope lived somewhere besides the bottom of a bottle, when romance hadn’t yet turned into regret, when there were sepias to go with the blacks and greys. A time, if I may play off the album title, when he could have been a contender. The wistfulness and tenderness, which you could hear the remains of on Alligator though crusted with cynicism, are on full display on Boxer.
In more concrete terms, though much will be written of Matt Berninger’s lyricism and smoky vocals, I have to say the star of this record is indisputably drummer Bryan Devendorf. Almost every song is built on a rhythms that are rock-solid yet so creative and complex that even non-drummers like myself can’t help but listen in awe. And on this foundation The National build compositions that are towering, yet intimate, spare yet with just the right amount of adornment in the form of perfectly placed horns and piano on top of the guitars, bass and drums. Some have and more will complain that there is no rocker – nothing like Alligator‘s “Abel” or Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers‘ “Murder Me Rachael” and it’s true, there is no fist-pumping anthem. But this is not a record for fists, it is a record for hands laid open, palms up.
Through some freak chance, I got my promo CD of Boxer back in March, before the album had even leaked thus making me, amongst the music geeks, the coolest kid on the block for a couple of weeks at least (until it did leak and then I was no one again). I was headed to a high school friend’s stag and doe that night so I loaded it on the iPod and resisted listening to it until I was on the train and was sure to be able to listen to it closely and uninterrupted. For forty-five minutes, I listened, watching the scenery blur by as the dusk gave way to night and when closer “Gospel” came on, and the train whizzed through the town I grew up in yet hardly recognized anymore, it was, as they say, a moment.
But don’t think for a minute that I’ve forgotten about THIS week’s big new release, Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky… well I haven’t. I’ll be dashing out after work to pick up a hard copy (deluxe edition, natch – have to add to that massive pile of music DVDs I haven’t watched yet) and while I haven’t downloaded a leaked version, I have listened to the streams a few times and while I can sort of see where those are frustrated by the record’s laid-backness are coming from (I expect Metacritic to level off in the mid 70s), I’m perfectly content to let Wilco be Wilco and if they want to chill for an album, great. I’ll chill along with them. There’ll be more records to come and if anyone is willing to come out and predict what the next one will sound like based on this one, well more you the fool. The Chicago Sun-Times interviews (and tries to bait) Jeff Tweedy and The Globe & Mail has a chat while The AV Club prefaces an interview to be published later this week by detailing a life informed by Tweedy. And stop by the Wilco Roadcase where they’re currently streaming the show in Sydney from last month and have plans to do the same for the two upcoming shows at Shepherd’s Bush in London – one for those who’ve got the enhanced CD, one for everyone else.
Stream: Wilco / Sky Blue Sky
Beulahmania offers an update on the status of Mile Kurosky’s solo album as well as a recap of his recent adventures in surgery. Ouch.
Couple show announcements – The Polyphonic Spree hit the Phoenix on July 5 to support their new album The Fragile Army, due out June 19 (full dates at Pitchfork) while the reunited Crowded House will crowd Massey Hall on August 13. Pete Yorn opens, Billboard has details and full tour dates.
Radio Free Canuckistan has posted a number of the raw interviews that went into his piece this week in eye about the independent concert promoters in Toronto. As someone who (obviously) goes to a lot of shows in town and knows a lot of the folks interviewed but don’t really know much about what they do or how they do it, I found both the article and interviews fascinating reading. The inevitable thread that followed at Stille Post is, typically, a giant mess of name-calling and complaining but there’s a some really good ancillary information amidst it all, as well.