Showing posts with label the national. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the national. Show all posts

Thursday, May 23, 2019

video review: 'i am easy to find' by the national

Okay, this actually turned out way better than I thought (thank god), and I'm actually a bit surprised I was able to pull the review together this effectively, but hey, I've got some momentum right now, might as well use it.

Next up... hmm, I really do need to get this Sonic Temple stuff down, but there are albums to be reviewed... we'll see, stay tuned!

album review: 'i am easy to find' by the national

You know, when a band you really love is on a hot streak, you do feel a little nervous before opening up any new album, with the high hopes they'll continue it but the niggling feeling in your gut they're going to slip up. And that possibility of the slip-up does have more weight in terms of expectations than I'd like to admit, because it can blow a big hole in how much you might care about a new project, especially if it hasn't quite received the avalanche of critical acclaim the band might have used to get.

And can you tell I'm talking about The National here? But let's back up, because after 2013's potent Trouble Will Find Me, I've noticed my opinions on the indie rock veterans tend to diverge from the popular consensus, from my passionate love of frontman Matt Berninger's side project EL VY and its release Return To The Moon in 2015, to my much more lukewarm at best reception to the band's 2017 release Sleep Well Beast, which took philosophically questionable ideas and married them to underwhelming production compromised in groove and overall tone. To me it stood as their worst album to date, but being in the minority of that opinion, I had no earthly clue if The National would double down on those tones and get even worse, or whether they'd pull a sharp face turn and recover... and frankly, I wasn't sure I was all that enthused to hear them fumble a response, especially given how ponderous their albums could be. But hey, who knows, maybe divorced from some of the questionable political reaction that contorted too many albums in 2017, this would be a return to form, so how was I Am Easy To Find?

Monday, September 18, 2017

video review: 'sleep well beast' by the national

You know, I don't mind bucking the critical consensus... but this one is exasperating, considering how much I wanted to love this. Eh, it happens.

But on the contrary...

Friday, September 15, 2017

album review: 'sleep well beast' by the national

So I've talked about The National before, the long-running indie rock project that outside of Spoon might be one of the most consistent critically acclaimed rock bands working today, beginning in alternative country before building its middle-to-upper class depression, melancholy, and vicious commentary on it all to impressive, occasionally thunderous, post-punk tinged heights. And while thematically they fell in very similar territory to LCD Soundsystem - at least in terms of obvious appeal to critics - the devil was in the details, the lived-in stories that didn't even pretend to build a veneer of cool in their weary trudging vulnerability, leading to an unsurprising populist streak that has consistently pulled me in. Their 2013 record Trouble Will Find Me hit my top five albums of that year, and yet even with that I'd still say it's not their best - probably going to Boxer there, although I will say High Violet probably had more immediately striking moments when it didn't get lost in the opulence.

But by now some of you might have seen the hidden catch: for as much as The National made music that by some definitions could be called 'middle-aged', there was a certain understated reserve of composure that did have its own distinct brand of ego and pomposity, more subtext than text but definitely visible if you were paying attention. And here's the funny thing: frontman Matt Berninger noticed it too, so he teamed up with Brent Knopf of Menomena to vivisect it as part of EL VY and their debut Return To The Moon - which made my year end list in 2015 for righteously taking down how such a world-weary sensitive indie rocker could also be an insufferable, condescending, pretentious twit, including an impressive downer ending where he only barely learns a lesson by not getting the girl. And make no mistake, Return To The Moon only gets better with every listen, but it had me worried about Sleep Well Beast and how well it'd resonate, knowing that Berninger had skewered this very persona two years earlier. But that wasn't going to stop me from listening to what could be my most anticipated indie rock record of 2017, so what did we get on Sleep Well Beast?

Monday, November 2, 2015

video review: 'return to the moon' by EL VY

Oh, I can imagine this review will be controversial - mostly because from the reviews I've seen this record is pretty controversial among critics. I personally think it really works and absolutely love it, but I can see the other side for SURE.

Next up I want to talk about Joanna Newsom, but I've got one bit of old business to finish first. But of course we've got Billboard BREAKDOWN coming, so stay tuned!

album review: 'return to the moon' by EL VY

You ever have those albums that the first time you hear about the idea, you wonder why on earth nobody has ever thought of it before?

Yes, I know, I've used that tagline before when I've talked about Casualties of Cool and FFS and Algiers, but when I heard about the team-up of frontman of The National Matt Berninger with former Menomena member and current Ramona Falls frontman Brett Knopf... well, the thought didn't come immediately. The National might be one of the most stable and acclaimed groups in modern indie rock - for good reason, they're awesome - but Menomena was something different altogether, an experimental group specializing in looped progressions and an oddly democratic and programmed composition process that sparked enough curiosity for me to dig into their early albums. And holy God, I'm glad I did, because while it was experimental in an oddly regimented way, this group had a knack for fantastic melodic loops and progressions that if married to the crescendos and intricate lyricism that had made The National a favourite of mine, we could have something special. And just for curiosity - and to check to see if Menomena hadn't been an amazing fluke - I also checked out Ramona Falls, and while they're a looser act, the great melodies are still here along with a slightly more eclectic and theatrical presentation that also happens to be pretty damn awesome. 

So, okay, two great tastes coming together to make an album that Berninger described as his most personal and inspired by a blend of the musical Grease and the punk band Minutemen - and you should know them because they're awesome and Double Nickels On The Dime is a goddamn classic... look, this was bound to be interesting at least. Was I right?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

the top 25 best albums of 2013

And now we're down to the final list - my top twenty-five albums of 2013. This year, I reviewed 135 albums - and frankly, I should have done more. But I feel it's a plenty big sample size to discuss my choices, and all of these earned their slots on this list. I'll also try to keep this as quick as I possibly can - I've already talked about all of these albums in detail, and you should all check out my reviews if you want a more in-depth discussion. Also, my list isn't exactly going to correspond with common critical consensus - there are albums I have picked that have been ignored, and there are certain albums that some critics lauded that I didn't find nearly as strong. Got all that? Good, because we're not waiting any longer, let's GO!

the top 50 best songs of 2013 (PART TWO: 25-1)

Whew, that takes care of that.

Last one is the long-awaited albums of the year - stay tuned!

the top 50 best songs of 2013

Some of you are probably scratching your heads with confusion at the title of this list and wondering, 'Wait, didn't he already make this exact same list a few days ago?' Well, this list is significantly different than the last one, mostly because we're no longer talking about the hits. No, these are the songs, singles or otherwise, that appeared on the albums I listened through this year and stuck with me. They aren't the hits - most of you might not recognize the songs I mention, but all of them bear the highest of my personal recommendations. That's right, from the 135 albums I reviewed this year, these were my favourite songs. I'm not segregating them by genre or success - singles or deep cuts all have a chance to make this list, which was initially reduced from thousands down to 436, which was then narrowed down to fifty. And believe me, even with that I had to make some painful cuts, and what is on this list will surprise you. So, without any more delay, here are my Top 50 Songs of 2013! Let's get started!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

video review: 'trouble will find me' by the national

So, I normally post these as an edit to my typical review posts, but I want to try something new by having the videos on the main page. If you have any comments regarding the reviews, make sure to let me know whether or not you prefer the old format.

So, in case you didn't take a look at the written album review, this is my retrospective review of The National's album 'Trouble Will Find Me', and where I finally deliver the smackdown on Mumford & Sons. Fun stuff!

album review: 'trouble will find me' by the national (RETRO REVIEW)

So here's the rant you've all been waiting for, the topic of which I'm sure has been seared into your mind since the very beginning: why I, like apparently every other music critic, thoroughly hates Mumford & Sons with the hatred of a thousand suns. The faux-folk rock band that deserves to be consigned into the flaming abyss, the band that co-opted the image and earnestness of folk rock and turned it into shameless commercialism, clearly one of the worst acts to have every blighted this world today. And I, as a critic with reputably harsh standards, clearly must hate them with extreme force, right?

Well... no, not really. Make no mistake, Mumford & Sons aren't a good band, but they sure as hell aren't the scourge of all music as a slew of would-be hipsters have branded them. They have some natural talent for catchy-as-all-hell melody lines and memorable harmonies, they have a mostly distinctive sound, and they sell all of their material with gutwrenching sincerity (which, believe it or not, goes a long way with me). To me, I've consigned to the rung of 'painfully mediocre', right next to Nickelback (don't even start).

Hmm, come to think of it, Mumford & Sons does seem to strike me as rather similar to the post-grunge act that ruled the rock airwaves throughout the early 2000s. Both bands have a lead singer that sounds like he's delivering his lines directly from his colon, both were accused of selling out to the tasteless masses (believe it or not, this was actually true for very early Nickelback), and both made music that somehow lodged itself in our brains like tapeworms. 

But what I think is most indicative of the similarities between these two bands is a very important concept that I've been skirting about for a while, but haven't found the right time to talk about until now: artistic framing. This is most often conceived as a device for literature and film, where the context can be adjusted depending on how the scene is written or shot, and which can be used to powerful effect by talented directors and great writers. One of the reasons, for example, while many people despise Twilight isn't for the misogyny or the stalking or the Mormon undercurrents, but because said elements are framed in such a romantic light. In the hands of any sane writer, Bella's story could have easily been written as that of a thriller or a melodrama between a very stupid girl and her vampiric stalker, but Stephanie Meyer sets up these events to feel romantic and attractive to Bella, and thus the reader - you know, abandoning appropriate context in favour of the author's wish-fulfillment fantasy.

And believe it or not, this becomes a big issue in music as well. A lot of alarmists tend to look at acts like Eminem and Kanye West and see terrible, reprehensible human beings promoting messages of misogyny, homophobia, and violence - and yet both artists have made it clear from the very beginning that they aren't role models and that nobody should aspire to be like them (hell, Eminem wrote several songs about it). They (or at least their artistic personas) are assholes, and we shouldn't so much glorify them as recoil from or pity them (that's the one big reason that I give a pass to Relapse, an album that seems designed to make Slim Shady look as pathetic and wretched as possible). Of course, the question then becomes that some people will interpret the surface themes of the album anyways and follow their manifests of hatred anyways, but that's a trickier topic for another day.

So coming back to Mumford & Sons and Nickelback, the same problems with framing crop up here too (albeit significantly more with Mumford & Sons). We're expected to buy into these acts as having sensitivity and/or more heartfelt emotions, and it feels completely disingenuous with Nickelback's humourless and sour delivery and Mumford & Sons' consistently terrible lyrics. You don't buy into the emotions they're trying to convey because some element of their framing completely shatters that immersion. It's why I'd argue Nickelback has actually slowly been getting a bit better over the years: they've actually embraced the fact that they're douchebags, and are just rolling with it to create douche-bro party anthems that at least feel authentic (if a little gross).

Mumford & Sons, unfortunately, haven't quite reached that point of self-awareness, which I think is one of the big sticking points for me with the band. They deliver all of their material with the heartfelt earnestness of a man proposing marriage in the mid-1800s, but their lyrics are rife with lines that undermine this earnestness at every turn, which makes it look all the more like a pose (also, their music has little-to-no instrumental texture and the production is pop as all hell, but that's another issue). And more than once, I've wished that we could find that band that had all of the earnest sincerity of Mumford & Sons, but had the lyrical context and texture and was framed in a way that made sense or added additional depth.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to The National, the indie post-punk act for which I was waiting. Now I suspect that many of you actually already know this band (particularly if you watch Game of Thrones), but I just discovered this band and considering they're easily one of the best acts I've discovered in a long time, I want to talk about them at length. Make no mistake, considering my luck approaching indie acts this year, I was more than a little surprised by how incredibly solid The National was, particularly when placed in competition with their lesser contemporaries, and they pushed a lot of important buttons for me.

For starters, the lyrics were audible and high enough in the mix to make out, and occasionally there was some real emotive poetry hidden behind the clever turns of phrase. I wouldn't quite say it's as descriptive or lurid as that of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, but it's not trying to be either. The National is very much a 'mature' act, and like Deep Purple from earlier this year, they transform that maturity into a real strength that adds poignance to their lyrics. You can tell through the placement of the vocals that The National began as an alternative country act, and the importance placed on lyrics and the 'older' subject matter comes through here as well. More importantly, The National are smart enough to frame their songs intelligently, making sure that if their song's narrator could be interpreted as an asshole or a prick or a loser, he's appropriately positioned in that regard, supported by both lyrics and instrumentation. And considering how many songs The National writes about sad-sack losers who have screwed up their lives, they've nailed the formula down to a tee.

But what I find significantly more interesting with The National comes through on the other underlying theme of the majority of their work: upper class Americana, and the existential ennui that comes with it. Admittedly, The National do a very solid job speaking to all demographics, but with the highly literate songwriting and richer instrumentation, it's very clear they're targeting a certain college-aged yuppie hipster group within popular culture. And as with before, it comes back to the framing for why this works, both skewering the nastier elements of these subcultures (racism, classism, misogyny, antiquated value systems, etc.) and still writing music for the more perceptive of the audience to find the distinct sadness in said characters. In comparison to Vampire Weekend (who treat their privilege like a family heirloom only they are allowed to play with), The National are more blunt and don't hesitate to cast their narrators as just as sad, pathetic, desperate, and lonely as anyone else, and it's a testament to their excellent instrumentation that you're actually able to sympathize instead of scoff with derision at 'white people problems'.

All of that being said, I do have a few issues with The National. The band has occasionally recycled instrumental themes (which can get exasperating) and musical dynamics, which can lead to some songs running together. And as often as Matt Berninger has been compared to Nick Cave for his delivery and uncompromising framing, I'd argue he doesn't quite have the same emotional range in his voice that Cave does. Granted, he pulls off depressed and morose very well, but anger still occasionally seems like a foreign emotion to Berninger and that can get frustrating. On top of all of that, with similar thematic elements running through their previous five albums, it would be nice to see them switch up the formula, go for something darker or in a different vein entirely. Otherwise, it just feels like they lack imagination.

So, what do I think of their newest album, Trouble Will Find Me?