the national – high violet

The National High Violet.jpg

i can count on one, maybe two, hands the number of records i listen to just as much now as i did five years ago.  many people undoubtedly find themselves in a similar situation for a variety of reasons, but i’m a highly impressionable person at an equally impressionable age, so it follows that a large portion of my musical diet would be substantially different at the age of twenty-three than at the age of eighteen.

for instance, i now see the incredible merit and social relevance of rap music and appreciate the muted refinement of ambient artists, while i tire quickly of acts like the black keys and muse that once structured such integral components of my musical identity.  although there are many albums i revisit frequently with general fondness, only a select few have consistently remained in heavy rotation for a half-decade.

the national released high violet on may 10th, 2010, just a few weeks before i graduated high school.  already industry veterans, the national had recently experienced two successive strokes of good fortune: the critical acclaim of 2007’s boxer and their label’s subsequent merger with 4ad.  a larger label means a bigger press cycle, which is inevitably how i was introduced to their fifth album.

i’m still not sure what initially drew me to the national, but i have a feeling it was largely due to familiarity and comfort.  familiarity in the sense that matt berninger’s voice was lower, more in line with my own, and comforting in the sense that he could be so emotive within the confines of a limited vocal range, a shared affliction that i had previously thought impossible to overcome.  then there was the fact that the national’s overarching demeanor was a little bit downcast and glum, which immediately reflected the lingering bits of sadness and self-doubt i was starting to feel over closing a huge chapter in my life and beginning a new one from scratch.

over the course of the ensuing summer, high violet took a backseat to more upbeat records conducive to late-night drives and sunny afternoon beach outings, but it held a special place for those slower moments, ones where i had extended time periods to myself and access to headphones.  the tremolo guitar chords that open “terrible love” were immediately soothing, a guiding force that eased me into a sense of melancholy and reflection.  throughout the following year i gradually absorbed the album and turned to its predecessors, boxer and alligator, for points of reference, but i always felt particularly drawn to high violet, to its effortless interchange of brass and strings as harmonic support, to berninger’s narratives and reflections, to the dessner brothers’ triumphantly symphonic compositions.

when played in full, high violet ebbs and flows with confidence. “bloodbuzz ohio” is the centerpiece of the album, both sequentially and structurally: the first five tracks build slowly towards it, each one offering a single trait that would eventually be absorbed into “bloodbuzz.”  specifically, the drumming in “anyone’s ghost,” the gradual wall of sound in “little faith,” and the orchestration in “afraid of everyone” all compound on one another to the point that the subsequent arrival of “bloodbuzz ohio” feels completely natural, as if nothing else could possibly follow.

the back half of high violet details the comedown from the exuberance of “bloodbuzz”; appropriately, it’s nearly a mirror image of the front, with elements being continuously subtracted until the arrival of “vanderlyle crybaby geeks,” a finale with similar gang vocals and string arrangements to that of the opener, “terrible love.”

symmetry aside, i constantly found other aspects of high violet to hold close.  the penultimate cut, “england,” was especially relevant in the first few months of 2012; berninger’s personification of an emotion throughout “sorrow” was a strong point of reference when i started to take poetry a bit more seriously; bryan devendorf’s blatant disregard for rock drumming conventions forced me to re-examine the rhythmic constructs and possibilities of every song that i wrote.  it seemed that every few months for the first three years that i owned this album, i would find something new to obsess about and pour over within high violet.

by the time i reached my senior year of college in the fall of 2013, the national had released their follow-up effort trouble will find me, and while i loved the album and cherished its place within the band’s chronology of development, a sliver of disappointment overcame me as i realized that they would never again offer up something that flowed as organically – and with such volatility – as high violet.

individual songs on the album had, by that time, largely ceased to function as emotional triggers for me, but it still remained on my iphone in its entirety and it frequently soundtracked my long walks to and from classes and around town.  particularly, high violet felt appropriate against the desolate backdrop of cripplingly cold and long wisconsin winters, reflecting the underlying misery while offering a degree of warmth akin to freshly-swallowed whiskey.

as i sat down to revisit high violet in depth for the umpteenth time in order to write this column, i’ll admit that i saw the telltale signs of an album that’s beginning to wear on me.  moments that once felt mesmerizing now had a slightly stale taste; some of the symphonic arrangements now feel derivative, unnecessarily grandiose.  still, i distinctly remembered my heart being beleaguered by the usual suspects, i still found something new to admire and dissect in bryan devendorf’s drumming, and i still laughed at the comically morose zombie references stashed in “conversation 16.”  high violet might not be an album that will hold a permanent slot on my portable media device five years from now, but its influence is paramount; i’ll always save a special place for those eleven tracks.


mixtape sunday – dimestore saints


we’ve compiled a new quintessential mixtape in light of our second anniversary.  the following eight tracks have either made a lasting impression since this blog began or have continued to pull their weight and hold significance amidst the high volume of content we churn out over here.  click the play button to hear offerings from lcd soundsystem, the national, daughter, and more.

best of 2013: songs

i’m upping the ante and treating you to my ten favorite songs of 2013, as opposed to last year’s five.  my choices don’t necessarily reflect contenders for album of the year, but don’t be surprised if some of the same names show up over the next couple of weeks.

10. oostende – keep shelly in athens: “oostende” was my first true glimpse at sarah p.’s vocal personality, which stretches from hesitant to confident within the duration of a verse and a chorus.  the synth pads are brooding throughout, but the lead line that kicks in three quarters of the way through the song routinely gets stuck in my head.  easily the best track off of the duo’s debut album at home, the power of “oostende” is only bolstered by an incredibly heart-wrenching music video.


9. collapse – vancouver sleep clinic: the second of just two tracks released by vancouver sleep clinic this year, “collapse” easily proves what tim bettinson is capable of doing with his voice.  retaining an incomprehensible aesthetic akin to bon iver, “collapse” evokes a frigid winter landscape that has already become relatable.  the production behind the vocals is also impressive, molding some james blake drum pads with soft-rock, folky guitars.  both vancouver sleep clinic songs have been firmly distinguishable so far, but “collapse” flexes the ensemble’s potential the most.


8. graceless – the national: trouble will find me still hasn’t fully settled in yet.  while the cohesive aspect of the album may be lacking, i know that “graceless” is probably one of the best songs the national have ever written.  there’s that underlying post-punk tone that harkens earlier tracks off of alligator and boxer, along with a truly anthemic final chorus.  the national is a band that ages well, and a sustained break from their earlier influences helped to add depth to that sound.


7. diamond mine – pillar point: i love a good mystery.  when i found pillar point through polyvinyl’s twitter page, the sheer absence of a biography or any sort of personal identity attached to the project made me appreciate the music that much more.  “diamond mine” is a chillwave standout that mixes a multitude of pulses, but that lead synth line is always an earworm, whether syncopated or straight in time.  the lyrics are a bit melancholy, juxtaposing the sunny, up-beat accompaniment, but that only adds to the overall sophistication of the songwriting here.


6. tennis court – lorde: i could talk about “royals,” but everyone talks about “royals.”  lorde stands for something that goes against the mainstream materialistic values and idolization of glamorous pop stars, but she’s also still a kid, barely out of high school and three years away from turning twenty.  that doesn’t detract from the fact that she’s very self-aware and intelligent; i think “tennis court” showcases this the best.  its lyrics are less about dissociating from material goods and more about defying social trends and chasing perfection.  “tennis court” is fairly autobiographical, highlighting lorde’s naivete in the music industry, but her skeptic tone suggests that she won’t buy into its extravagancies.  i guess we’ll just have to wait and see.


5. savage – majical cloudz: there’s a lot to be said about majical cloudz and their fantastic, under-the-radar year.  devon welsh’s voice is routinely haunting, pairing well with the minimalist compositions that define the aesthetic of the duo.  impersonator was an admirable record, but i was drawn to “savage,” a bonus track released just last month, more quickly than any song found on the album.  the ostinato keyboard part sets the tone for welsh’s lyrics, a fairly direct romantic narrative.  the first time i heard him break from his declamatory phrasing to croon “high on lsd with you,” i was sold, and i’ve felt the same tingling sensation every listen since.


4. summer skin – teen girl scientist monthly: someone likened teen girl scientist monthly to the pains of being pure at heart on steroids, a comparison that works especially well for “summer skin,” the opening track on their newest album modern dances.  the opening guitar line sells the song as an instant earworm of powerpop, but the gradual additions of keyboard textures and gang vocals find the brooklyn ensemble as an amalgamation of the answering machine and arcade fire.  “summer skin” is the kind of song you would wait around for hours to hear on the radio, but thankfully, you don’t have to do that.


3. comrade – volcano choir: “byegone” garnered understandable praise for volcano choir, with its anthemic folk rock feel reminiscent of bon iver’s sophomore album.  but “comrade” is the essence of what volcano choir has become: the marriage of collections of colonies of bees’ post-rock leanings and justin vernon’s vocal tendencies.  responsible solely for the lyrics and vocals on repave, vernon was in his element, generously modifying his voice to embellish the experimental aesthetic of the band.  the autotuned coda at the end of “comrade” makes the song and is gloriously powerful live; watch the video below for a frame of reference.


2. lungs – chvrches: any song off of the bones of what you believe could contend for a spot on this list.  chvrches was one of the most impressionable bands of 2013, seamlessly blending pop hooks with indie sensibility and dance floor beats.  “lungs” is buried deep within the album and is a syncopated gem; lauren mayberry’s voice is subtly doubled with a vocoder, adding a harsh undertone to an otherwise crystal clear timbre, but it’s the quarter note-triplet pattern fed through a filthy bass synthesizer that defines this song.  friends of mine who almost exclusively listen to electronic dance music appreciate chvrches due to this song, further showcasing the band’s accessibility across a wide variety of genres.  “lungs” is on par with every single released off of the bones of what you believe, and is probably better than some of them.


1. boat rich – dads: it didn’t take long before “boat rich” was my most-played song of 2013.  clocking in at under three minutes helps, but the fact is that the guitar work is too catchy to not listen to on repeat.  dads started to receive some national attention this year with the resurgence of emo, but the new jersey duo are just as likely to throw a quick meter change into a song as they are to wear their hearts on their sleeves.  the chorus of “boat rich” is anthemic in nature and each repetition builds, culminating in a climax following a triplet-based interlude.  check out dads’ pretty good ep if you haven’t already, and keep your eye out for more material in 2014.  i know i will.


the national – trouble will find me

of all the bands that pride themselves in writing quality sad bastard music, the national have to be on the short list of bands that do so in a very convincing manner.  since 2005’s alligator, matt berninger’s suave baritone coupled with the music of the dessner and devendorf brothers have been dominating the indie rock scene, earning the national spots on presidential campaign tours and a slot on damn near every one of my applicable mixtapes.

high violet turned the heads of nearly anybody who’s anybody in the music industry back in 2010; the pounding post-punk tendencies of earlier albums had mostly been quelled, giving way to signature mid-tempo songs like “terrible love” while still churning out incredibly memorable offerings in “bloodbuzz ohio” and “conversation 16.”  this impressive feat was coupled with an additional handful of songs on a bonus disc that were recorded during the high violet sessions but didn’t quite fit thematically, rounding out the national’s best batch of songs to date.

to follow something so monumental with so much confidence would be a daunting task, so it’s understandable that the national took three years to do so.  songs on trouble will find me began cropping up in late 2011, and a year later, the band had premiered a quarter of the album’s content in live settings.  the release of lead single “demons” early this year cemented my anticipation of continuity from high violet; bryce devendorf’s signature drumming is plastered all over this track and from the moment berninger sings “i’m still in love with / everyone i grew up with,” it’s evident that his morose lyrical palate is here to stay.  what threw me were tracks like “don’t swallow the cap” and “graceless,” the former of which my dad immediately compared to the cure’s earlier catalogue.  this reappearance of the national’s post-punk roots was unexpected, but proves itself to be gloriously refined, courtesy of the band’s maturation.

“sea of love” seems to be the national’s follow-up attempt at recreating “bloodbuzz ohio,” a valiant effort that falls slightly short, simply due to the fact that a song of that caliber can’t be effectively replicated.  plenty of tear-jerkers still exist throughout trouble will find me; “heavenfaced” and “pink rabbits” are two of my early favorites from an album that should probably be saved for an incredibly dreary day, so i can adequately soak up its aesthetic.  in a world of sad, the national hold on to their crowns for another year.