Monday, May 17th, 2010
Review of The National’s High Violet
Keith KlenowskiTo suggest I’m a little bit biased when it comes to The National is something of an understatement. The Cincinnati by way of Brooklyn band has put out two of my favourite records of the century in Alligator and Boxer, and when word came that their next record would arrive in 2010, I reserved a spot for it in my year-end list. That’s about as big a declaration of faith in the greatness of a record as a blogger can make.
The flipside of this, however, is the probably unrealistic expectations that accompany that faith. Boxer was almost exactly the record I needed at that point in my life, and the odds of that sort of synchronicity happening again with its successor is probably about nil. This understanding did allow me some perspective in contemplating High Violet, but didn’t change the fact that it had some enormous footsteps to follow in. After all, Boxer was widely considered to be a watershed album. How do you follow up a career peak?
By turning it into a plateau. If there were a way to actually quantify such things, High Violet would rate as almost as good or even better than Boxer, with the plus-minus determined only by one’s personal resonance with the material and the tone of the record. Whereas Boxer felt like a lightening of philosophy after the noir-ish Alligator, its elegiac mood has darkened again on High Violet. The glimmers of hopefulness that punctuated Boxer seem to have been muted and the angst and anxiety is again creeping in around the edges. This doesn’t, however, herald a return to the cathartic rock moves of Alligator; much to the dismay of fist-pumpers everywhere, it’s clear the band is well past its days of writing tracks like “Abel” and “Mr. November”. Instead, it manifests itself in a lyrical clarity that’s a ways removed from Matt Berninger’s typical obliqueness and his delivery, which finds him not necessarily expanding his range – I don’t think anyone expects him to find another octave anytime soon – but songs like “Anyone’s Ghost” and “Conversation 16” find him pushing it in unfamiliar directions or dwelling in parts of his voice that he might have only passed through fleetingly in the past en route to more comfortable territory.
Though longtime collaborator Peter Katis is still credited as providing additional production and mixing, High Violet notably lists the primary recording site as guitarist Aaron Dessner’s garage and the band as sole producers; it’s evident that the studio was heavily utilized as an instrument on this outing, which represents an aural shift from the cleaner textures of Boxer towards something denser and sometimes hazier. Album opener “Terrible Love” sounds almost filthy with its base of fuzzy, tremoloed guitars and I’m still not sure what the oscillating tones that bookend “Little Faith” are. More familiarly, the orchestral accents and choral vocals that embellished Boxer have returned, but feel more like integral parts of their sound.
Ultimately, High Violet triumphs by not trying to eclipse Boxer, but stand alongside it. The band offers growth without abandoning its strengths – hell, “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “England” are two of the most National songs they’ve ever recorded. It’s thoughtful, sad and stately and, for all the shadows it casts, is downright luminous. The National are incapable of disappointing.
There are features on the band at The Wall Street Journal, Spinner, The Fly, Canadian Press and The AV Club. Their live-to-web show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in support of the Red Hot Organization is still available to stream at YouTube and you’ll probably get a lot higher quality stream watching it after the fact than in real time.
The National play Massey Hall on June 8 and 9.
It was announced last week that bassist Carlos Dengler, upon completion of their new record, has left Interpol. Expect to see a new face – and perhaps moustache – holding down the low end when they open for U2 at the Rogers Centre on July 3. No release date for album number four has been confirmed.
Pitchfork reports that some industrious fans have compiled an album’s worth of Titus Andronicus rarities and made them available for download as Feats Of Strength. Odds of them busting out any of this material when they play The Horseshoe on July 14 are poor.
A couple of big shows have just gotten attached to NXNE – Eagles Of Death Metal at The Phoenix on June 16 and Girl Talk at the Sound Academy on June 18. Expect their names to show up in advertising all over the place and for a modest number of wristbands to get into each show (50 for Girl Talk). And speaking of NXNE, the schedule for this year’s festival is now online and yes, just like every other year, it’s impossible to use/navigate/save/do anything with. It’s called a grid, people – look into it.
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is back and will be exploding blues all over
the Horseshoe Lee’s Palace on July 31. There’s no new material coming out of this short reunion, but there is a best-of comp in Dirty Shirt Rock ‘N’ Roll: The First Ten Years and reissues of the studio albums proper are imminent. Magnet has a Q&A with Spencer, who will be playing guest editor on their site this week.
I’m really not sure what you could expect from a Van Dyke Parks live show, but Toronto will find out on September 29 when the arranger to the likes of The Beach Boys and Joanna Newsom, along with Clare & The Reasons, plays the Music Gallery.