The National are in a good predicament. They’ve existed for more than a decade now, have released several great albums, and have become one of the mainstays of the indie realm. But I don’t think the music community has really made their mind up about them. Is the National seminal, influential and transcending, or are they simply really good? It’s an odd place to be, and a very 21st century problem, something that would only be asked in this modern era of post-zine, internet-era fandom. They’re a hard band to place. For whatever reason the National doesn’t get the same immediate, salivating response an Animal Collective or an Arcade Fire evokes.
But none of that matters when Matt Berninger croons, forever in his white-collar hell, “It takes an ocean not to break,” on High Violet’s opener, “Terrible Love,” or when the submerged, delicate strings finally become evident on “Runaway.” Those questions simply fade away when the National are just, you know, playing their songs. Berninger’s bemused poetry and regal, retro arrangements, that unmistakable milky guitar, the incredibly character-driven stories—these elements belong solely and patently to the National, who are at their best on High Violet.
Still, High Violet isn’t anything close to a statement. Like the rest of the National’s catalog, it’s a grower, a slow burn of 11 songs with enough anthems (“Terrible Love,” “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”) to bookend everything, all delicately polished and meticulously performed, you know, just like the rest of the stuff this band has released. But probably the one thing that makes the album truly subversively special is its complete lack of weak points. If Alligator was too emotionally overwrought, and Boxer, a little too boring, High Violet splits the difference perfectly. It may not have the same emotional resonance of those two records, but it’s much more universal. High Violet is great the same way the National is great, by organizing and producing tracks in a way where they’re most effective. So is the National seminal? Why not? They’re iconic, they’re smart, and of course, they make great music—and this album is the perfect example of that.
MP3: “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
Are Band of Horses huge yet? This will sound like a complaint, but it’s really not. It’s just that they seem so perfectly designed to straddle the eras of classic rock radio like the Foo Fighters, Wilco and the Shins before them. Listening to Infinite Arms and reading that the band relocated from Seattle to the Carolinas, I’m struck by how appropriate it is that they’re opening for Pearl Jam right now. I bet they’re selling tons of CDs every night. (Or at least inspiring people to pull out their iPhones and download them immediately.)
On their new record, the Horses don’t stray too far from what’s been working for them so far. That means mildly distorted riffs, twin guitar strumming, Ben Bridwell’s highly melodic falsetto crooning, a big 4/4 drum sound, and some of the most legitimately anthemic songs I’ve heard lately. It’s enough to make me wish I had a Zippo handy to raise up in a crowd of 6,000 at a Midwestern arena show. From the light swing of “Factory” to the reverb-drenched strings and whistling of “Infinite Arms,” the first six tracks are exactly what you’ve been hoping for if you liked their last album.
Unfortunately, the album ends with “Bartles & James,” an Allmans-inspired power ballad they’ve been avoiding making until now, complete with an organ solo. But before they get to it, Bridwell and company mix it up a whole bunch. “Dilly” sounds like they’ve been cribbing Beatles-esque technique from the Whiles (as unlikely as that may be). “Evening Kitchen” and “Trudy” are earnest acoustic numbers that get by on some really tight group harmonizing. And “Northwest Apartment” is, well, crunchy power-pop. Seriously, it’d fit well on a Posies album. The upside is that none of these chameleonic moves sound overly forced. I’m not sure how the fans at the Pearl Jam shows will respond, but I for one am glad to hear them being both consistent and adventurous.
It’s either a right of passage or a total cliche. In the same way that rock bands embrace the use of an orchestra as a sign of maturity, dance acts will inevitably be seduced by Lady Rock & Roll. At best, it will come together as a seamless blend of both styles, like the Chemical Brothers’ songs with Mercury Rev. In the worst case scenario, it becomes an excuse to slap some “punk” guitar over the top of some beats.
The latest to heed the sirens’ call is UK break specialists Audio Bullys, with their first album in four years, the rock-styled Higher Than the Eiffel. As the group is best known for industrial-sized dancefloor bangers, but had hinted the new album would be more rock leaning, it would be fair to expect the dreaded breakbeats with guitars. Instead, Higher delivers proper songs that, if you didn’t know any better, could be credited to any band of the moment. In other words, Simon Franks and Tom Dinsdale (a.k.a. Audio Bullys) nail it.
With some tracks sounding like classic Brit-pop and others straight woofer-melters, it’s like the Bullys have channelled the past 20 years of UK indie music: some touches of early Supergrass and Blur, a healthy dose of the Streets’ everyman confessional hip-hop styling, and snatches of Franz Ferdinand, to name a few touch points. The worlds of dance and rock do intersect, as on “Feel Alright,” but it’s with a sense of restraint. The sequencing places most of the dance tracks towards the end of the record, making it feel a bit off balance, but that’s a minor quibble on a record that’s one of the best integrations of rock and dance in years.
Dorian S. Ham
The problem with No Singles is that the record almost entirely lacks charm. It sounds like the cassette one of your friends passed you in college which then made you spend the next six weeks avoiding his gaze because you couldn’t stand to tell him what you really thought of it. You recognize the effort and the earnestness, but the bottom line is that something big is missing. In many cases, the missing element on the two now-rare EPs collected here is taste.
Maybe they just thought they’d never be in a recording studio again, so they felt the need to stuff all their tricks into just a few songs. Hence the allusions to both Rush and Big Black all over the place—some things just shouldn’t mix. “Darkness on the Edge of Gastown” has a sludgy one-note riff, appropriately creepy shouted/whispered vocals, but the lyrics read like the lost verses of (Phil Collins’) “Don’t Lose My Number.” I guess there really is such a thing as trying too hard. I mean, look at the song titles: “Sexual Aerosol?” “Lucifer’s Symphony?” I hope they’re trying to be funny. Even if you really dig Post-Nothing, and maybe especially if you did, spare yourself the consternation and do yourself a big favor and skip this.
MP3: “Darkness on the Edge of Gastown”
The racket that Austin three-piece Woven Bones makes ought to come with some sort of warning label. This is insidious stuff, and In and Out and Back Again feels like it might be causing tooth decay as it drills its way into one’s noggin. Take “You Already Knew;” constructed from the simplest of caveman (or in this case, cavewoman) beats, peak-level fuzz and Andrew Burr’s hiccupy yowling, it forgoes pleasantries as it cuts to the bone. One might be tempted to call it “primitivism,” but it just takes the quick route to hit the right pressure points. So too with “Your Way With My Life,” which channels the Jesus and Mary Chain (circa “Vegetable Man”) in creating a piercing sonic tang. But even amongst the din, the band leaves room for nuance, whether it be Cramped, as on “Creepy Bone,” or a furious whine, as on “Couldn’t Help But Stare.” The young band has obviously already learned enough to know that there’s a lot that can still be done with rock’s basic tenets, but they seem to have also realized that it sometimes helps to kick a few holes in them as well. In and Out is the sound of those punctures being made with beautifully brutal precision.
MP3: “If It Feels Alright”
Jon Spencer has been particularly busy lately—even given his rather prolific standards—fronting the rockabilly group Heavy Trash and getting the Blues Explosion and Boss Hog back together for the occasional show. In the meantime, he and wife Cristina Martinez found time to hook up with Solex for the trans-Atlantic collaboration Amsterdam Throwdown, King Street Showdown! Perhaps its predictable that the album, which was recorded by Solex in her native Amsterdam and Spencer and Martinez in New York City, spans any number of genres, even within a single track. A song like “R Is for Ring a Ding Ding,” for example, includes funk, hip-hop, electronic and rock elements, sounding at times like a vintage Blues Explosion or Solex track.
This could all wind up disintegrating into a jumbled mess, but Amsterdam Throwdown, King Street Showdown! fashions those disparate elements into a pretty enjoyable record. Tracks like “Galaxy Man” and “The Uppercut” hit an invigorating groove that’ll get your butt shaking. Others, like “Racer X” and “Aapie,” take on a playful tone without sounding too corny, and it’s readily apparent that Solex was able to successfully spotlight the lighter side of Spencer and Martinez. The marriage of Spencer’s trademark dirty guitar sound and Solex’s studio wizardry really does sound right throughout the album, making Amsterdam Throwdown, King Street Showdown! a pleasant pre-summer surprise.
MP3: “Galaxy Man”