Monday, August 4, 2014

A Blue Ribbon On My Brain (Redemption 6)

What makes the magic that is the National?  The songs you say? Perhaps.  There are certainly some gems within their discography, strongly (songly?) written melodies and lyrically deft and wise.  Is it their persona as fiercely independent intelligent indie outsiders breaking into the mainstream?  Their almost losers status made good does make them golden and certainly appealing.  But more than anything, what makes the National them and uniquely them is how in the interplay between abilities and philosophies they produce records that reflect their individuality as well as a uniquely collective vision.

Think about Matt.  Matt’s skills are his considerable ability to write non sequitur lyrics (that somehow add up to more than the sum of their individual parts), his charismatic live performances and his general all around handsome-manness, not his vocal prowess.  He’s a rocker and a shouter and he’s all about emotion and fury (and not a little bit of well caged drunkenness) and completely unlike anyone else in the band.   And for sure, his voice has some pretty strict limitations, especially in range and expression (either mournful or howling).  But beyond the obvious limitations Matt’s voice has, it does have a nice tone, especially in evoking world weariness and a certain haunted restless dissatisfaction; said milieu suiting the National’s musical aesthetic perfectly.  Think about it, if Matt’s voice were an instrument of Bubleian grandeur, it would overwhelm all the other aspects of the band.  It is a case of limitations becoming strength.  Listen to the guitars in “All the Wine” supporting Matt’s voice, giving the illusion of range.  It’s the guitars and bass providing the color in the chorus while Matt’s haughty baritone is singing the hell out of the beat.  Nothing really traditional in terms of arrangement, but everything perfectly balanced to brilliant net affect.

It is the guitar work of the brothers Dessner that give most of the National songs their humming power.  The carefully accented guitar filigrees and angular guitar lines expand the melodic reach of the compositions, extending the Beringer baritone from black and white into vivid Technicolor.  “Wasp’s Nest” is barely a monotone of a melody but with the ringing guitars cupping Matt’s voice, the song soars with a generous sprinkling of sugary Christmas bell beats.   “About Today” is yet another perfect example of this balance between monobaritone and chiming guitars (with perfectly drawn drum beats providing just a little hope to move the hopeless song into morning).  But that’s not to say the guitar solo doesn’t have a place in the National record arsenal.  “Abel” (tied with blood buzz for my favorite national song) pins all it’s promise on guitar god work (and Matt’s most unhinged vocal ever).  Would that the Dessners became more regularly unhinged in their guitar playing.  But again, would we want Matt to have to shout all the time to keep the balance?  And what would the National be if they had to be a four by four rhythm section providing structural support for guitar god roof raising?  (pretty much any other neglected indie band that had their moment in the sun, I’d wager)

Keyboards in National songs usually play a lot of the same rolls the guitar figures do, providing melody and breadth, but staying in the background for the most part.  However, there are a few National songs that use piano more predominantly if unconventionally, rolling out rhythmic figures and loping chords against the outlines of songs like a tuned drum. 

Really though, it’s the rhythm section and most specifically the drums that are the not so secret weapon in any National song.  Whether it’s the geese in Beverly Hills, fake empires, or buzzing in Ohio, the drumming and bass provide the beating heart to every National song.  Intricate, propulsive and always detailed, the brainy drumming never settles on the obvious beat or approach.  The bass playing perfectly jumps from melodic to foundational support on a dime.  The rhythm sections grants a depth and complexity to the simplest National tune. The brothers Devendorf’s work has become progressively more pronounced in the mix as the band has grown and has become more assured and complex.  So integral to the National “sound” is the drumming that it’s practically in a dead heat with Matt’s voice (another slightly less intricately syncopated monotone) as the single most identifiable aspect of the National sound.  

Now go and listen to your favorite National song.  Listen for the guitar line or piano line that opens the song, wait a beat for the insistent hesitant poly playful drumming contradicting or chasing the melody line around the center of the song, listen for the burdened hum of Matt’s vocals at the center of the swirl.   The order of introduction, the keys and the time signature might change just a little, but the elements will all be there.  It’s only a question of the mix and how high the sky goes and how deep the chaos gets.  It’s always a universe onto itself.  It’s a National song.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

I Can't Say in the End (Redemption 5)

A long long time ago.

We’d spent the day in Comstock, at my uncle’s place, for a family picnic and were heading back to the farm in the long summer evening. The August air was fuzzy with heat, humidity and the assurance of storms.  I sat in the back of the car, listening to AM radio on my ginormous radio headphones (one of the best Christmas presents ever, btw). Dire Straits and storm watches.  Farm fields rolling by, cows and crops pressed flat to the earth by the weight of the day.  Silly Love songs against a sky rouged as the sun slid towards the clouded horizon. 

And then.  and then. It happened. An orchestral opening; followed by gently strummed guitars and a haunted voice singing from another universe, strings rich as rainfall wavering in the mix.  A panoramic chorus no companion as the song drew back down to the single voice.

“Gazing at people, some hand in hand.  Just what I’m going through, they can’t understand.” 

Maybe it was because the charged ionosphere rattled the signal, but each element of the song; the plaintive flute, the hushed drums, the swell of strings, the trumping horns and plucky harp, the final gong was perfectly highlighted, enhanced even, by the warp and weave of the radio waves as the song sought out the receiver in my brain.

I was completely and utterly transfixed, somewhere between the car, the ominious sky and some mysterious other world where letters were written, but not meant to send.  Surfing the radio waves as the song built to a grand crescendo of strings.

Then a pause.

And the narration began; “Breath deep, the gathering gloom” sent goosebumps up and down my arms.  Each line seemed equally prophetic and apropos (even if i'm not still not completely sure what it is supposed to be about), “another’s day’s useless energy spent,” spinning me into space me  with the closing line, “but we decide which is right, and which is an illusion.”  The song faded out but I was still held in limbo practically unable to move.  Radio static filled my mind for ten seconds, no dj, no music, sky red with dread and building clouds chasing the car.  But I was not even in the car.  Just some other place and time, captured by the radio waves and flung into the ether for what seemed like a lifetime. 

Then.  In the distance. Distant electronic sounds fading in an out.  A ringing telephone calling.  Drawing me back into view.  “Hello, how are you?  have you been all right?”  A lifeline offered to me from the capricious waves showing me the way back.  “Hey, how you feeling?”  With each verse and chorus I came a little bit closer to myself.

“Telephone line, give me some time.  I’m living in twilight.”

By the fade I was back in the car, shaken and glorious for all that the seven other people had noticed my experience and absence.

We made it home just before the storm broke.

Best long song ever?  “Nights in White Satin/Telephone Line” accidental mash up.