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The National

+ {El Vy} + {LNZNDRF} + {Aaron Dessner & Bryce Dessner}

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 Cincinnati, 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 or ARAB STRAP, 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.
Meanwhile, Bryan – who’d just moonlighted with PFARMERS alongside Danny Seim and Dave Nelson – and brother Scott teamed up with BEIRUT trombonist-turned-singer Ben “Hoferlanz” Lanz to form a trio in order to unfetter the eponymous LNZNDRF (2016) {*6} album. A dark and moody krautrock-ish affair that also echoed the likes of The CURE and NEW ORDER (a handful of pieces recorded in The Monastery, Cincinnati), alt-rock aficionados would be impressed by `Beneath The Black Sea’, `Mt. Storm’ and `Hypno-Skate’.
AARON DESSNER & BRYCE DESSNER – as they were billed – duly took on cinematic soundtrack work on Greg Kwedar’s thriller, TRANSPECOS (2016) {*6}, an atmospheric instrumental score; the brothers would re-emerge a few years later as Red Bird Hollow. Sandwiched sparingly between these off-shoots was Bryce’s credit on 2017’s “Planetarium” album, alongside Messrs SUFJAN STEVENS, Nico Muhly and James McAlister.
The NATIONAL were back on track in September 2017 with the global chart-topping, SLEEP WELL BEAST {*8}. Recorded at various locations between Berlin, New York and Los Angeles, the subtle sadcore synths and musicianship complemented each meticulous construction; and there was almost hope not heartache in pieces like `The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’, `Carin At The Liquor Store’, `Guilty Party’, `Nobody Else Will Be There’ and the dynamic `Day I Die’.
To mark the 10th anniversary of the group’s most celebrated set, BOXER: LIVE IN BRUSSELS (2018) {*6} – from a gig in Belgium the previous November – was thankfully limited in scope, and one could almost taste another round of solo projects coming on when Aaron teamed up with BON IVER’s Justin Vernon to dispatch an eponymous “Big Red Machine” album, that August.
In conjunction with a film project directed by Mike Mills (not the R.E.M. bassist), The NATIONAL’s hour-long 8th album, I AM EASY TO FIND (2019) {*8}, was also enhanced by female singers Gail Ann Dorsey (ex-THE THE), Eve Owen, Parisian Mina Tindle, Kate Stables (alias THIS IS THE KIT) and the already established soloists SHARON VAN ETTEN and LISA HANNIGAN. The cinematic flourishes (from the choral-addled `Dust Swirls In Strange Light’ and `Not In Kansas’ to the yearning title track) added another dimension to the band’s overall sound, a sound that stretched beyond mere shape-shifting chamber rock. Somehow the transatlantic Top 5 set gelled for the most part, though several of its 16 tracks (including highlights `You Had Your Soul With You’, `Roman Holiday’, `Hey Rosey’, `Rylan’ and `Light Years’) had an insular, slow-burning effect for passing shufflers – but persistence certainly paid dividends when discovering each and every molecule of the record’s haunting heartache and spectre.
© MC Strong/MCS May2013-Jun2019

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