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The National

Unique in the fact that they include two sets of brothers, the Dessner’s: Aaron and Bryce (guitars/keyboards) and the Devendorf’s: Scott (bass) and Bryan (drums), post-millennium Americana indie-rock quintet The NATIONAL would be nothing without their baritone frontman, Matt Berninger. Taking their grounding from 80s/90s alt-rock acts from TINDERSTICKS, AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB, RED HOUSE PAINTERS, WILCO, et al, Berninger and Co have since captured the minds of an abundant sadcore fanbase from all around the globe.
Formed Cincinatti, Ohio in 1999, The NATIONAL turned to Brooklyn, New York for inspiration, while building on a live reputation that spread quickly to other states. Balancing on a slightly tinged country-rock sound and/or gloomy chamber-pop, THE NATIONAL (2001) {*7} eponymous debut set, comprised a generous array of sombre songs, the pick of the bunch being `Beautiful Head’, `Cold Girl Fever’, `American Mary’, `Son’ and `Watching You Well’.
Maintaining their potent, downbeat alt-country, WALKER, COHEN or CAVE also come to mind on several of the pieces on SAD SONGS FOR DIRTY LOVERS (2003) {*6}. `Cardinal Song’, `Slipping Husband’ and `Trophy Wife’, grip the listener and create a dour atmosphere without – but for `Murder Me Rachael’ and `Available’ – breaking any sound barrier. The mini-set, CHERRY TREE (2004) {*6}, was much the same, while featuring their inaugural cover, the closing `A Reasonable Man (I Don’t Mind)’ from Brassland labelmates, Padma Newsome & The Clogs ( a quartet that boasted Bryce Dessner).
Upgrading to Beggars Banquet Records, subsequent albums ALLIGATOR (2005) {*7} and BOXER (2007) {*8}, were closer to a jolly JOY DIVISION, the latter set proving productive on the sales front as it rose into the Top 75. Guest spots for SUFJAN STEVENS and the aforementioned Newsome, the punchy “Boxer” touched on the intimate side of Berninger’s lyrics; check out `Fake Empire’, `Mistaken For Strangers’, `Slow Show’, `Start A War’ and `Apartment Story’.
More suited to the ethereal and eclectic ranks of 4 a.d. Records, whom they duly signed a deal with, 2010’s HIGH VIOLET {*9} navigated them from lonely, dirt road rock act to swaggering, alt-rock arena commanders – almost overnight. Top 5 in both the States and Britain, the opening couple of salvos, `Terrible Love’ and `Sorrow’, set the tone for this glorious gloom-addled disc, while `Bloodbuzz Ohio’, `England’, `Conversation 16’, `Anyone’s Ghost’, `Afraid Of Everyone’, and the album’s oddball but memorable closer, `Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’, heralded a band in transition and at their intoxicating best.
It would take something special to dislodge this as contender for album of the decade, and although their long-awaited sixth set, TROUBLE WILL FIND ME (2013) {*7} followed in a similarly-themed and chart-peaking pattern, it fell a little short by comparison. As melodramatic and atmospheric as its predecessor, one could argue that best shots `Don’t Swallow The Cup’, `Demons’, `Pink Rabbits’ and `Humiliation’, would hardly dent a singles chart even if the download-fixated climate was again backing “rock” acts.
His day job put to one side, singer Matt Berninger had time on his hands to develop extracurricular project, EL VY – pronounced as in the plural of “Elvis” – with RAMONA FALLS multi-instrumentalist Brent Knopf (ex-MENOMENA). The fruits of their labour were finally unveiled toward the fall of 2015 in the minor placed, RETURN TO THE MOON {*7}. Blessed with that brooding baritone brogue, Berninger transcended fictional, autobiographical-like characters from his kidulthood, trading in, more or less, alt-rock for moribund mirror-ball new wave. Alter-egos aside, earworms best represented here were `No Time To Crank The Sun’, the sex-funk of `I’m The Man To Be’, `Paul Is Alive’ and long-winded, name-checking opener `Return To The Moon (Political Song For Didi Bloome To Sing, With Crescendo)’ – the latter couple inspired by The MINUTEMEN.
© MC Strong/MCS May2013-Nov2015

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