Tuesday, November 3, 2009

My Favorite Things

Each month I take the opportunity to tell you about one of my favorite bands, because I can. Last month I waxed poetic on the bucolic and haunting Sparklehorse. Today we are getting down with a band who writes Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, The National.

The members of The National all hail from Cincinnati, a city known for, um, being a part of Ohio, but didn't truly get their act together until they moved to Brooklyn (where magical rock star powers are clearly in the water). Their self-titled debut and second album, the aforementioned Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, were both met with little fanfare, but The National quickly got their act together and have since put out two stunning and critically acclaimed records, Alligator and Boxer.

The band is led by the whiskey-soaked baritone of Matt Berninger, whose lyrics often bounce between white collar worries ("All night I lay on my pillow and pray/for my boss to stop me in the hallway/lay my head on his shoulder, he'll say/son I've been hearing good things" - from "Baby We'll Be Fine") and obscene nights out on the town ("Karen, put me in a chair, fuck me and make me a drink," - from "Karen"). Berninger is accompanied by two different sets of brothers, Scott and Bryan Devendorf and the crazy-talented guitarists, Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Sometimes the music is straight forward, driven mostly by Berninger's desperate pleas and liquored up dreams, and Bryan Devendorf's drums that are so precise you'll swear they're programmed by a computer (but they're not). At other times the the band breaks out in a full-on symphony, like a not-so-high-on-life Sufjan Stevens - who actually accompanies several songs on piano on Boxer.

Sometimes listening to The National will make you want to put on your best "blue blazer," and "tip-toe through your shiny city" staying up late and getting drunk with your friends. Sometimes the mood is nightcap, lonely, with the lights low in your apartment, staring out the window at all the people heading home from the bars. This is music for responsible adults who desperately miss their days of deviance and getting in trouble; the types of people who "wouldn't want angels watching over them," and well, the angels wouldn't wanna watch them either. It's the type of music that may hit a little too close to home for anyone in their late twenties to early thirties, living in a city. While Bruce Springsteen is the voice of the blue-collar, hard working American, Berninger speaks for those of us who waste away in cubicles, climb ladders and go to networking events.

In "Racing Like a Pro," Berninger tells the story of a "Pink, young and middle class," protagonist with "15 blue shirts and womanly hands," who used to be a "blowing young ruffian," and now sometimes "bakes cakes or lays in bed all day." Amongst a soft acoustic guitar, some sad jazz horns, and tinkling piano, Berninger, totally unsettled by the loss of youth, booms, "Oh my God, it was a million years ago. You're dumbstruck baby." In "Baby We'll be Fine," he comes home at the end of the day, tries to be seduced by his girlfriend, and ends up spilling whiskey and melting like a witch. And in "Squalor Victoria," he says fuck it, and "raises his heavenly glass to the heavens."

No one listens to The National the very first time and falls in love. Both Alligator and Boxer are growers. They take time. But soon enough you'll be loosening your tie on the train home from work, reminiscing about what you thought you were going to be when you were young, and what you swore you wouldn't be, and you will turn to the only band in the world who understands. You might just keep the Ipod on repeat as you drink yourself into a whiskey-stupor and pick that old smoking habit up again as Berninger assures you, "baby, we'll be fine."

Dumbstruck indeed.

-Travis Hare


  1. Anonymous3/11/09 11:43

    The second I hear those thick piano notes I'm thrust into that first, hot summer in DC driving on the beltway wondering "What will this hideous beautiful place have to offer?"...

    God, this band is amazing.

    Nice review!

  2. Anonymous6/11/09 21:01

    THE NATIONAL Rocks! I first heard them on a long drive to DC and fell in love with them somewhere in the mountains of Virginia. I'm not a huge fan of Indy rock, and prefer my radio rock, but sometimes I just need my "National" Fix

  3. Anonymous6/11/09 21:06

    There is no CD in the universe that I like every song on, except for The National,Boxer CD. It's true, they do grow on you.