In which I admit I was wrong about a band
by Stephen Whitworth
Trouble Will Find Me
I used to have a troubled relationship with The National. In 2010 the veteran Ohio band released their fifth full-length, High Violet, and everyone I knew who was under 30 and into music would not shut the fuck up about it. I, however, didn’t like it. At all. Lead singer Matt Berninger has a thin, seemingly disinterested Leonard Cohen-y baritone that did nothing for me, and the songs themselves were mopey as fuck.
I remember assigning a writer (okay it was Emmet) to do a hit piece on the record to “stick it to these goddamn gloomy kids in their 20s who all like this depressing shit, Jesus Christ, what’s wrong with them?” (Emmet gave the record 3/5 prairie dogs and told said kids to listen to some Jonathan Richman, which is not bad advice.)
Okay, so I was wrong, wrong, wrong, all right? I couldn’t shake the feeling I was missing something, so I kept listening. It took six months of playing High Violet (and The National’s previous, 2007 album, Boxer), over and over but I eventually realized that there’s a trick to this group — and it’s a good one. Berninger’s voice is aural sleight-of-hand that prestidigitatiously directs attention away from the band’s staggering musicianship so it can hypnotize listeners from the shadows. The drums tapdance like tipsy crickets at a bug jamboree, the guitar notes merge in controlled near-unison like syncopated waterdrops in sheets of rain and the whole thing comes together like magic. The real stuff, not card tricks.
The National’s not as dour as it appears, either — there’s wry humour in the lyrics. I should’ve figured out Berninger was smiling behind lines like “I was afraid I’d eat your brains because I’m evil.”
Trouble Will Find Me has more of the same. This album doesn’t have a lightning in a bottle hit like Violet’s “Bloodbuzz Ohio” but it seems more coherent as a whole. There’s energy, there’s emotion, there’s subtlety and humour and tears (“Pink Rabbit” is ripping my guts out as I’m typing this). There’s even a little bit of “Avalon”-style Roxy Music (on “Demons”). The whole thing is great, great, great — a brainy and passionate masterpiece of prestidigitation.
I’ll be exploring this one for the next six months, at least. Highly recommended for anyone who likes their Americna indie-rock knowing and wry.
This review has been updated repeatedly since publication, because Whitworth can’t stop listening to this record.
A Tribe Called Red
Nation II Nation
I was tired when I sat down to review Nation II Nation, having spent an hour wrestling with an old-school Julia Child roast chicken recipe (“poulet en cocotte bonne femme”). However, the opening track, “Bread and Cheese”, had me at, well, “Bread and Cheese”. Not as français as it sounds, but every bit as delicious and it jerked me awake.
A Tribe Called Red’s trailblazing mélange of electronica and powwow is genius as both musics share an elemental, body-moving nature that’s made for dancing. What’s just so fucking great about ATCR though, above and beyond their excellent EDM jams, is their outspoken stance on aboriginal issues and their championing of native and Native youth culture. Nation II Nation tones down the dubstep influence of their earlier singles while still making one want to dance hard. Listening to the record, I imagine myself at their party, reveling in the body-shaking beats and searing voices, whilst being throroughly roasted in ATCR’s righteousness –– a winning recipe, to be sure. /Amber Goodwyn
Modern Vampires Of The City
Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij have never been shy about their pop leanings. For all the word barf about Vampire Weekend being a Graceland gift wrap sort of outfit, these fancy lads sure like to aim for the Big Pop Moment. Modern Vampires Of The City has the band aiming for bigger, darker and more challenging pop thrills. Mission accomplished, boyos.
On this third effort, Vampire Weekend have a satchelful of carefully crafted pop offerings that somehow manage to seem delicate and gargantuan at the same time. The dizzy (and occasionally George Michael-esque) charms of “Diane Young” brush up nicely against the MAXIMUM REGAL DRAMA of tracks like “Step” and “Ya Hey”. (Also, “Unbelievers” sounds like Patrick Stump’s solo stuff for reasons I can’t quite untangle.) Modern Vampires Of The City is the sound of a band that’s ridiculously confident in the way they’re evolving. The instant highs of their previous efforts are in short supply here, replaced by songs designed to soak right into the bone marrow. /Dan MacRae
Jim Guthrie always seemed to be the weird, experimental guy in the Three Gut Records crew. It’s not that his labelmates on the essential Canadian indie label of the pre-Arcade Fire 21st century –– the Constantines, Gentleman Reg or Royal City (of which Guthrie was a member) –– are or were particularly hit-driven or haven’t made challenging music, it’s just that Guthrie was always just a little further out there on the outer limits of pop. What a surprise to learn, then, that in the decade since his last proper solo album Guthrie’s main musical output has been of the most commercial kind –– actual T.V. commercials. You probably remember his super-catchy “Hands in My Pocket” jingle for a credit card company.
Takes Time allows no distinction between cheery, hyper-referential jingle and spacey folk-pop. Guthrie brings them into harmony with one another in really interesting ways. /Emmet Matheson