Saturday, September 8, 2007

pickin apples, makin' pie

Last night I found myself at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, at the sold-out performance by Brooklyn by way of Cincinnati's own The National. The first and only other time I saw The National play was when they opened for The Arcade Fire at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in Asheville. I had really good seats at that show, in the middle floor section no more than 25 rows back, thanks to the lovely folks at Merge Records. As soon as I sat down, The National came onstage and opened with “Start A War,” the eight track on their new-ish album Boxer. Considering who they were touring with, I assumed they would be playing a similar vein of bleeding heart/gasping for breath/indie-rock-church-revival that Arcade Fire is known for. I was blown away when they started playing, and by the end of the performance I had to reach down and pick my lower jaw off the floor. They far outplayed Arcade Fire that night, and probably made polite, subtle, this-is-kind-of-overrated fun of them a bunch backstage. These guys are six normal looking dudes with scruffy facial hair, loose-fitting clothes, and thrift store button down shirts, playing without any projectors, stage props, or giant church organs to boot. That is to say, these guys let the music they play speak for itself.

After an enjoyable performance by openers Doveman, another Brooklyn band who feature about three members of The National, the band came out onstage and once again opened with the album standout "Start A War," and as I had remembered it from last time, extended it, built it up with more crescendos, and right when you thought each member was about to spontaneously combust from the intensity they were putting forth on such a seemingly calm, harmless song, they stopped, continuing right into "Mistaken For Strangers." Most of the songs on Boxer, lie somewhere in the three minute mark, displaying that solid songwriting is their strength, or as many reviews I’ve read have said, they know how to quit while they’re ahead, almost as if they’re anxious they might fuck up the song if they continue any longer. Thus, many of their songs come to a seemingly abrupt end, sounding rather truncated. They continued right into "Brainy," and from there on out they were unstoppable. Playing a nice mix of old stuff as well, they played nine out of the twelve tracks on Boxer. While I think the record is fantastic, the band sound larger, more epic, and downright more intense when they perform live, an intensity that I wish could have been captured a little bit more in the recording process. While this may simply be the virue of any band's live performance. There's nothing more boring than seeing a band who play their songs so note for note that they may as well be spinning the record onstage while they're signing autographs. That is the exciting part about seeing The National live: the performance transcends your experience with the music, by changing it up a little they give you a new part of themselves to go home with. For five normal looking guys, they leave every ounce of themselves onstage.

It must be truly weird for these guys to be having the success that they’re having. The band consists of two pairs of brothers on the drums, bass, and guitars, all of whom are originally from Cincinnati, OH. Their Midwestern roots from a part of the country that many Americans probably forget even exists, a city whose biggest claim to fame is either Pete Rose or the chili they have, seems to maintain a high level of influence on not only their music, but their attitude as well.

The fact that opening band Doveman, which features two or three members of The National, did a spot on cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” reveals The National’s great sense of history, welcoming the influence of North American music in with open arms. As Josh Neas put it in his review of the album, the music sounds like a journey through decades of American music, combining folk, punk, new wave, indie, and country into one flawless sound. They probably listen to Bruce Springsteen as much as they do Grizzly Bear, and for folks like me who can never settle on any one kind of music to listen to, The National speak volumes in their influences.

From the brit-pop/Modern English sounding “Apartment Story” to the fleeting, stay-up-all-night feel of “Fake Empire,” they played a positively, disgustingly good set throughout. Interestingly enough, some of my favorite songs they did were the ones I didn't know, presumably off of 2005’s Alligator, which I picked up on vinyl at the show. They put forth that rare performance that, even though you know all the songs from beginning to end, leaves you wanting to do nothing the next day but listen to their records, as I am doing right now.

Their touring violinist/keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist dude adds so much to the band, with his violin(maybe it’s a viola?) filling in a lot of the empty space between the guitars, flushing it out and making it sound about 10 times more epic. The National perform like a very modest band who seem quite unsure of themselves, conveying both confidence and overwhelming stage fright at various points through the night. They awkwardly thank the crowd in a very sincere and earnest way. Vocalist Matt Berninger is the anti-lead singer, somehow maintaining a captivating, earnest stage presence while simultaneously looking as though he were trying to crawl inside himself to get away from the thousands of onlooking eyes across the room. They perfectly captured the sense of American anxiety that seemed to fill every member of the sold-out crowd who came to see them play. They don’t need to dress up like chickens or something onstage, nor are they going to write an entire album about how the lead singer’s girlfriend dumped him. Honesty bleeds through their music and Berninger’s fantastic lyrics, leaving you with something to take home, whether it’s a t-shirt, a poster, an LP, or just the feeling that you’ve grown immeasurably by witnessing their set. Maybe all of the above.

Video for "Mistaken For Strangers"

"Fake Empire" live on Letterman

"sometimes you get up and bake a cake or something. sometimes you stay in bed."

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