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How curious it is though that the true torchbearers of traditional Country come so far from Nashville. Holed up in Ohio, The National must have been raised on all Cash and no Kenny. Saved from a life of big hat music, their music is almost defiant in its lack of polish. Maybe it's the desire for the plaintive and the true that fills every Wilco gig with bar-hugging 30-somethings?
Tales of drying deltas and stolen record collections make an uneasy soundtrack for shopping at Sainsbury's but is the perfect accompaniment for an evening reading Steinbeck.
On their third record Alligator, The National has clearly kept the studio radiators on full blast to maintain the muggy atmosphere. Unfortunately the songs themselves are rather undercooked. The melodies are almost translucent. What draws me in is the slurred drawl of Matt Berninger, who has a touch of the Triffids in his booming baritone. 'I know you put in the hours to keep me in sunglasses' he sings with all the joie de vivre of a pallbearer.
It's been argued by afficionados that within Leonard Cohen's melancholic work is a thick vein of comedy. Any wise man in the autumn of his years must realise and savour life's surreal quirks. Berninger also sounds suitably comfortable as the bemused outsider as he quips 'I'm a perfect piece of ass' on the standout "All The Wine".
This record is aural wallpaper par-excellence, a wash of arpeggios and gently lulling piano. In that it is sweet and utterly inoffensive. There are however relatively few rousing refrains or truly memorable moments. --Chris Hilliard
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Matt Berninger provides deep, soothing vocals reminiscent of Ian Curtis and, more recently, Interpol's Paul Banks, which slot in perfectly with the high-pitch guitar noises. But the range of styles and oblique lyrics suggest there's far more on offer here than moody alt-rock. Berninger turns alt-country strummer 'Karen' into a medium for his deepest thoughts and sexual confessions. You'll notice the breezy tune first and the interesting lyrics ("Karen, put me in a chair, f**k me and make me a drink" and even more disturbing, "It's a common fetish for a doting man to ballerina on the coffee table, c**k in hand") second, giving the album substantial replay value.
Almost every track on this mini masterpiece is intriguing and listenable and there are highlights in abundance. 'Abel' boasts a great sing-along chorus of "My mind's not right!Read more ›
The best thing about The National is Matt Berninger, vocalist and lyricist. He has a deep voice, often compared to Nick Cave's but much more melodic, though hardened by years of heartbreak and nicotine addiction. His lyrics are bleak poetry, of lost loves and frank sexual admissions. For example in "Baby, We'll Be Fine", he recounts "I pull off your jeans and you spill Jack and Coke in my collar".
The guitar work between the two guitarists (one of the two sets of siblings in the band) is subtle and skilled, while not overwhelming the focal point of the band which is Berninger's unique voice.
There is some sublime string arrangement on this album too, without it being like a country fiddle type sound, or taking over the songs. The strings just add another layer to the music, and a certain beauty also.
Percussion is unusual. Often off-beat and strange rhythms, it always seems to strangely fit with the music, although a simple four beat rhythm would be much simpler. It is this added ambition which puts this record ahead of The National's eponymous debut and the EP Cherry Tree. Though I personally believe Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers is their finest hour, Alligator certainly comes close.