New (To Me) Music: The National

“Wow, whose voice is that?”

That’s what I said the first time my coworker Taylor played The National on the little stereo at work — and with good reason. The first thing that hits you about this band is Matt Berninger’s unforgettable baritone, which easily ranks as one of the best singing voices I’ve ever heard. The remaining four members of the band are two pairs of brothers (though their touring band includes other members). They’re an indie band from Cincinnati that’s been around for about five years (read their full bio here). They are active in funding AIDS research and in raising money for Haiti relief efforts. The National gained a lot of attention from music critics following the release of their fourth album, Boxer, in 2007. Since then they’ve built an underground following and even opened for the likes of Arcade Fire and R.E.M. In 2008 Barack Obama used one of their songs during his presidential campaign. Still, they’re somewhat of an undiscovered gem, as most people I’ve talked to haven’t heard of them (including me until a couple months ago). Their most recent album, High Violet, was released this past spring and it is excellent from beginning to end.

Words like haunting, brooding, and slow-burning are often used to describe The National’s sound. Their songs have a definite layered, dark, thick feel to them, giving the music a great vibe. It’s night music, though it’s not depressing music. “Making something heartfelt is our only concern,” says guitarist Aaron Dessner of the band’s creative process.

I’ve been listening to High Violet for about a month now and it grows better with every listen. More than any other album I’ve heard, it unfolds slowly to the listener and reveals something subtle with each repeated listen. I also appreciate how restrained some songs are.  The band resists the urge to drench a song in strings or go for a big soaring chorus when a smaller, more appropriate one will do.

The National is an album band; their songs sound best when the album is heard as a whole. But here are a couple tracks from High Violet. First is the music video for “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” and second is a live performance on the Late Show with David Letterman of “Afraid of Everyone.” If you watch carefully you can see Sufjan Stevens playing in the background; he’s part of their larger touring line-up.

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