I’ve recently had the pleasure of introducing The Princess to the music of The National. In itself, I find this to be the weirdest of weird concepts. I try (and fail) to imagine how I would have felt had I gone home from college in the early 70’s and my Dad had said “Sit down and skin up, lad. I want to play you the latest Grateful Dead album.” In that era and among people of my generation, anyone in their 50’s who professed to like bands like It’s a Beautiful Day or Pink Floyd or Hawkwind would have been dismissed out of hand as a nutcase. It was our music; they had all that classical and jazz stuff …and Perry Como.
Yet now, for whatever reason or reasons, the generational divides that kept one era hermetically sealed from another seem to have dissolved to some extent, meaning that it’s quite feasible for The Princess to nominate Joy Division as her favourite band – and for me to be listening to The National.
Everyone seems to be writing about The National, which only emphasises that 2010 has really been their year – critics falling over themselves to wax lyrical about the band’s latest album -‘High Violet’, a major slot at Glastonbury, BBC presenters fairly drooling over them at Maida Vale Studios and a headlining slot at the Bonaroo Festival in Tennessee. And yet, The National have been around for a long time and no doubt those that discovered them back in the early noughties have become practised in curling their collective lip at arriviste enthusiasts like yours truly. ‘Twas ever thus….
The National have their origins in the midwestern city of Cincinnati, but are now perceived as leading lights in the thriving Brooklyn music scene, having arrived there by way of Connecticut. The band is composed of singer and lyricist Matt Berninger and two sets of brothers; Aaron and Bryce Dessner (guitars, keyboards) and Scott and Bryan Devendorf (bass, guitar and drums). They formed as long ago as 1999, though Berninger and Scott Devendorf actually go back to the early 90’s when they were both students at the University of Cincinnati. This longevity and perseverance is a definite part of their appeal in an age of instant superstars and short attention spans.
Down the boozer with The National
Their influences are diverse; there is the brooding melancholy of Joy Division, the guitar-driven pop of REM and the Paisley Underground shadings of The Rain Parade and Opal. Younger listeners would probably cite other bands that I have heard of, but never heard. The Joy Division comparison probably carries more substance than most because of Berninger’s moody baritone, which is indeed highly reminiscent of Ian Curtis, but whilst the band can mirror those gothic soundscapes, they are just as likely to come up with a semi-acoustic piece like ‘Wasp Nest’. Interestingly, there is a minimal stylistic development between their 2000 debut album and this year’s ‘High Violet’ (their fifth). Sure they have probably become more sophisticated instrumentalists and often draft in other Brooklyn-ite fellow travellers like Sufjan Stevens and Australian violinist Padma Newsome to fill out their arrangements, but in essence the sound of the band has remained constant and they seem determined to stick to what they do best. Which, I guess is to surf the borderlands between gothic new wave and alt.folk/country. ‘High Violet’ ups the ante only inasmuch as it utilises a slightly bigger sound, with horns and strings piling up above the basement rumble of Berninger’s voice in a way that evokes the first 2 or 3 Waterboys albums. Big music, indeed.