The National
Beggars Banquet

here’s a little quiz for you. Please take a moment to reflect. Answer honestly and no peeking at your neighbors papers. Proceed:

1) True or False: Stellastarr* was a good idea poorly executed.
2) True of False: Elefant was so concerned with rock posturing the songs got lost in the shuffle.
3) True or False: Coldplay writes pretty songs but need a swift kick in the ‘nads.
4) True of False: Joy Division is currently the band most cleverly copped by today’s indie-rock ruling elite.
5) True or False: The Strokes are a naked rip-off shamelessly proffered as something original.
6) Please open your blue books and write at least 300 words on this theme: According to Pablo Picasso good art is created, but great art is stolen.
If you answered true to the above questions then The National is patiently waiting to be your favorite band. All the members of The National reside in Brooklyn, by way of Cincinnati. The band consists of two sets of brothers playing instruments and banging on things and singer Matt Berninger baring the blood and guts of heartbreak and remorse in the best sounding Ian Curtis you’ve heard since, well, Ian Curtis. If Chris Martin wrote songs and made records as if he were the bully and not the kid getting his lunch money stolen, Coldplay would sound like The National. Okay, this one’s even better: If Chris Martin and that Paltrow woman were thrust into a Raymond Carver short story becoming half-cocked motel operators along Interstate 95 in Florida, Martin might write songs like The National routinely conjure up.

Now on to item #5 on the above quiz. Everything is derivative. The task at hand is making it sound or feel or read like something that hasn’t already gone before. The challenge is to steal the old, acknowledge the theft, and spit it back coated in your own ideas. Bands that are able to incorporate past styles and move forward are ultimately the most musically successful and most respected. It’s something that Interpol, Magnolia Electric Co., Knife & Fork, the freak folk movement, and The National have done. It’s what The Strokes, The Bravery, The Killers, and The Thieves haven’t done.

Alligator, the second album from The National, is an unabashedly dynamic record. The beats are propulsive, the guitars vary from clean and incisive to ragged and dripping, piano haunts the corners, strings cling to the melodies like moss, boy/girl harmonies arrive unexpectedly, the lyrics are clever, obtuse, metaphoric character studies of lives misjudged and decisions reflected on with regret.

While The National make a wonderful noise, the star of the show is lead singer Matt Berninger’s baritone. His voice is perfectly suited to his lyrical content, but more importantly it’s perfectly suited to the music that strains around him. Berninger recalls the previously mentioned Curtis on an up day or Brett Sparks of The Handsome Family minus the Americana spirit. When he sings a lyric like “didn't anybody tell you how to gracefully disappear in a room,” it’s a question, order, and invocation of pity all at once. When he sings about his “medium sized American heart” it’s with sadness and celebration. When the band rips into the chorus of “Lit Up” it’s like stepping off a cliff and not falling, we hover above water, held in place by the shouted lyrics.

“Baby We’ll Be Fine” is a devastatingly nuanced portrait of a struggling couple. Berninger’s small details, “you spilled Jack and Coke on my collar,” are accents to the dysfunctionality that the song chronicles. Drums ring in the background, a small string section struggles to be heard above the guitars, Berninger sings, “Baby, come over I need entertaining, say something perfect I can steal.” It’s all carefully laid out, divided into equal parts beauty and pain, dependency and desperation.

Throughout Alligator certain lyrical snippets fly from the speakers like drops of jellied gasoline, carried by a segment of violin, the ringing of a sublimely clean three note guitar run, or the frantic pounding of drums, these words stick to your skin:
“You should have looked after her better, you should have locked the door.”
“Fill the coat with weapons and help her get it on.”
“I’m a birthday candle in a circle of black girls, God is on my side.”
“I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders.”
In all these moments The National is keenly aware of their purpose. They are writing rock songs, lyrically mysterious often deep rock songs but part of a genre nonetheless. Most of the songs hover at the three-minute mark, content to say their piece and move along. That’s not to say that these songs aren’t ambitious. They are decidedly unique in sound and scope. The National are able to pack as much power into the songs on Alligator as any of the more heralded indie-rock bands working right now, only The National have taken the common influences and grafted them into something altogether fresh and remarkable. Pencils down, it’s time to listen.

Reviewed by: Peter Funk
Reviewed on: 2005-04-12
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