J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Now Departing

The National
Boxer
(Beggars Banquet ; 2007)

Personal experience with records is just that - personal. One reviewer can only pay attention to so much in a given year. And so, I slept on a record that would've certainly otherwise been placed in my top 10 records of 2005 - the National's Alligator. I finally put my ears on it in December of that year and proceeded to kick myself for having not latched onto it sooner.

But when things emerge from the ether, you often wonder if they'll disappear as quickly. Critically, in doing my research, I learned that the National's prior releases were fairly well heralded as well, but Alligator was a synthesis that seemed like the perfection of their trajectory. What would the future hold? There is a languid urgency to the National's music that is unique. Their vision of American music is trembling, warm and haunting. Boxer, their new album, is subtler, more intricate, devastating and might be the best record released in 2007 so far.

Opening with the meditative "Fake Empire," the record announces itself with each song, building up a tempo with the next few tracks. None of the songs ever approach the cathartic release of Alligator stand-out, "Lit Up," but they don't need to – the instrumentation builds dove-tailing portraits in gorgeous bits.

The record hits its first serious high-water mark with "Squalor Victoria." A hypnotic drum intro, over-laden with strings, leads into a solitary piano line that serves as the counter-melodic underpinning of the entire piece. An otherwise solid song is transformed into something completely amazing by that sole piano line, and it's not the final time that the band succeeds on those kind of terms.

"Slow Show" opens a run of four songs, planted firmly in the middle of the album, that are one gem after another. "Apartment Story" follows with its low, fuzz-grumbling guitar line and chorus that seems to ache to burst forth. The National are becoming masters of music that lifts its listeners to dizzy heights, only to let them drop, usually with sudden, seemingly unfinished song endings. In the hands of any other band, this habit of ending songs so suddenly would seem haphazard and give the album a ramshackle feel, but the endings seem purposed to let the listener reflect on the height they've just reached and to prepare for another.

There is nothing not to like about Boxer. It's better than any of the National's previous work and shows a band hitting a stride that, despite what the Tragically Hip once said, isn't ugly at all. In fact, it's downright gorgeous.

Rating: A(udiophillic)

[the grading scale uses the vowels: A(udiophillic), E(xemplary), I(ndifferent/nteresting), O(dious), U(nbearable) and sometimes Y(e gads, that's awful!) ]

Judge for Yourself:

The National - "Squalor Victoria" (download)

The National - "Slow Show" (download)

The National - "Apartment Story" (download)

The National - "Guest Room" (download)


Video: The National - "Mistaken for Strangers" (live on MTV)

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