Category Archives: the national

My contribution to TLOBF’s albums of 2010 (last National post, I promise)

1. The National High Violet

For a band accustomed to organic, incremental growth, 2010 will go down as The National’s Great Leap Forward. No longer are they your National; the band you’ve been telling your friends about since someone thrust a worn out copy of Alligator into your hands five years ago, pledging it would change your life (I’m speculating that most fans visited the earlier albums retrospectively). 2010 was the year The National out-Nationaled themselves and went global, becoming the most universally loved band on the planet in the process. The secret’s out: they’re Everybody’s National now.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the transformation took place, but the shoots of growth were sprinkled amongst the first blooming daffodils of spring. There was the early recorded performance of ‘Terrible Love’ on The Jimmy Fallon Show that went viral, leaving us wondering if the opening bars to High Violet were really to sound so gauzy. There was that sell out show at the Royal Albert Hall in May, rapturously received. And amidst all the eulogistic reviews that greeted the album’s release, there was the small matter of chart success: #5 on this side of the Atlantic, thank you very much.

But the difference between The National making such a transition and, say, REM doing the same in the late eighties / early nineties, is that with High Violet, they haven’t made a populist shift, sonically. The progression from the edginess of Alligator, to the majesty of Boxer was a natural evolution, borne out in the lyrical themes softened between the two records. High Violet is a hybrid record, of sorts. It is more ruffled than Boxer, yet retains the orchestral beauty and polish, marrying the two preexisting instances of The National into one magnificent whole.

Their methodology didn’t change one bit. The band are affirmed perfectionists and their ethos stood firm in the recording of High Violet. What did change, perhaps, is the scale of the sound on the album. This is a bigger record than any of its predecessors; not in the stadium-bothering ilk of U2 or Kings of Leon, but in terms of sheer gravitas. The songs, leaden with Padma Newsome and Bryce Dessner’s welling strings, are enormous, brooding entities bolstered the menace in Matt Berninger’s vocals.

Finally, the penny dropped, with an almighty thud that forced everyone to sit up and take notice. The National are successful because they deserve to be. High Violet is the best album of 2010.

First published here.

The Skinny: 10 of 2010 (#2): The National – High Violet (Interview with Scott Devendorf)

From humble beginnings, The National have become one of the most celebrated acts around. And with High Violet, they’ve taken their art to a new level, as I found out from Scott Devendorf.

The National are no strangers to these pages, nor indeed to these yearly charts of ours. Both Boxer (2007) and Alligator(2005) featured highly in their respective end of year polls. Looking back at the release of High Violet in May, then, it’s hard to assess what exactly the expectation might have been, but even the most optimistic speculators would have struggled to call this one. The National are not populists. They are a band one hundred percent committed to attaining musical excellence, on their terms. And yet, here they are, with a UK number 5 album (Billboard number 3) under their belt and five albums in, the world at their feet.

Reflecting on 2010, bassist, guitarist and pianist Scott Devendorf admits being “surprised, given the long road the band has taken.” For him, High Violet is “the culmination of a lot of work, over a lot of years.” As is seemingly the band’s wont, Devendorf speaks humbly and modestly of the their achievements. “All we ever wanted was for people to enjoy our records and come to our shows,” he says. But there is no doubt in his mind that the band’s recent success has been a key factor in making High Violet the record it is.

“A key thing for us was being able to afford our own studio. We built one at the end of the Boxer tour and were able to work at our own, often glacial pace. It gave us more opportunity to experiment with different types of recording, without feeling the pressure of the commercial studios. We had a lot of people help out on the record, too: Régine (Chassagne) from Arcade Fire, Justin (Vernon) from Bon Iver, Sufjan (Stevens)… to name just a few. That was also a product of having the studio. People could just come in when they were available.”

For many music fans, it’s refreshing to see a band as hardworking as The National become successful, particularly without compromising their values. And whilst there are certainly audible experiments on High Violet, there’s a discernable lineage from its predecessors. They didn’t reinvent the wheel, and Devendorf was happy to explain how exactly they arrived at the sound:

Alligator is a rougher record; it came with lyrics that were about an independent guy out on the street at night.Boxer was a statelier, orchestral piece. The lyrics were more about relationships with others. High Violet is a little in between, sonically. It’s a little rougher than Boxer as far as the type of song and the texture of the sound. The lyrics are more about the relationship that began with Boxer, now beyond its infant stage and it’s about dealing with that. I think it’s certainly more about tones and layers. It’s a lot like archaeology. Or maybe sculpture.”

The analogy flourishes, as we finally get around to asking what the band had hoped for back in Spring. “Well, we were just happy with the album. We’re mostly focused on producing the best music we can.” Art, then, the only way it should be.

Originally published here

The rest of The Skinny’s list, incidentally, is:

1. Joanna Newsom: Have One On Me

2. The National: High Violet

3. Caribou: Swim

4. The Arcade Fire: The Suburbs

5. The Phantom Band: The Wants

6. Beach House: Teen Dream

7. Pantha Du Prince: Black Noise

8. LCD Soundsystem: This Is Happening

9. The Books: The Way Out

10. Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest

The New Statesmen: The National Talk High Violet

Image by Ross Trevail

My interview with The National for The Skinny 

Cool, calm and collected: The National cut refined figures amongst the indie fraternity. The Brooklyn quintet’s principal songwriters Matt Berninger and Aaron Dessner talk humble beginnings and reveal how accurate a depiction that really is.

It’s almost two months before The National unleash their fifth album, High Violet. Matt Berninger and Aaron Dessner have been fielding questions in their homeland for over a week, but as they touch down in London to confront the UK press, you could never tell. The pair are gracious, enthusiastic and unerringly polite. “We worked on the record for a year and a half so we’re happy to talk about it now,” explains front man Berninger, his trademark baritone registering only slightly north of 8Hz. But The National didn’t get to where they are today through any lack of patience. Their formative years were spent moving from town to town, playing to handfuls of punters, living in squalor.

“I remember staying in a really nasty hostel in Glasgow in 2001,” says multi-instrumentalist Dessner. “We came back from our show to find all these drunken backpackers and one of them had put all their wet underwear on Matt’s pillow. We didn’t sleep much that night. I don’t know that we would do that again, but we earned our success one fan at a time. It taught us to convert whoever was in the room, even though there were often more people in the band than in the crowd.”

Berninger laughs when he’s reminded of those times. “It was a means to an end,” he says. And from humble beginnings great things come: these days, The National are the hottest ticket in town. High Violet is the must-hear indie release of the year, and it doesn’t disappoint. The band have produced another stonewall classic – on their terms – and both Berninger and Dessner are confident that it’s the most accomplished record in their canon.

“I think it’s completely unlike anything we’ve ever done,” Berninger assures, “which is what we want to do. It’s definitely our most ornate, layered and complicated piece; the weaving of the horn and string in and out of the ugly fuzzy guitar tones gives a delicate friction and balance and it was our intention to try to marry these to see what kind of alchemy it would create. I think we were more confident to try things we’ve never done before. Anyone’s Ghost is our first real pop song and a lot of the songs have more of a pop feel than what we’ve done previously. In the past, anything that sounded like a pop song, we just threw it away. This time we followed our impulses and weren’t so worried about being cool. I definitely think it’s our best record.”

The confidence the band are imbued with is fully justified. Having announced themselves on the scene with the underrated Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers in 2003, the Cincinnati via Brooklyn five-piece made a huge splash with 2005’s Alligator, an acclaimed album high on emotion and rich in melody. Commercial success followed, too, with 2007’s Boxer, a more restrained, but no less enjoyable record. High Violet, bound to be deemed the most accessible of their releases to date, is unlikely to result in superstardom, but firmly establishes The National as one of the most upwardly consistent bands of their time.

“You can see that what we’re doing in terms of trajectory is not completely random,” says Berninger when asked whether he sees a pattern in their discography. “It weaves one way and then back the other way, all the while moving generally forward; forward to the right, forward to the left. Boxer is very different from Alligator and in some ways we went the opposite direction. Boxer was circumspect and Alligator had lots of screaming. That was intentional; we didn’t want to back ourselves into a corner of being the band with the guy screaming over the top of everything. We cautiously tried to undo our identity at least on that level. This time – I think by doing that – we broke the mould of what people’s idea of what we were was. We diluted it enough so that we could do whatever we wanted. It gave us the freedom to do things like a pop song and have some ugly, jerky sounds and not have everything so pristine and stately as it was on Boxer.”

Their success is all the more remarkable when you consider that Berninger, whose voice – along with the idiosyncratic drumming of Bryan Devendorf – is the most distinctive asset in the band’s armoury, didn’t even realise he could sing until he was in his late twenties. But as any fan of the band will tell you, they broke the mould when they made The National. They tend not to conform to any Rock God stereotype, either musically or personally.

Much of the new album is built upon complex arrangements, layers of keys and guitars augmented with lush, yet unpretentious orchestration. Dessner puts it best when he admits: “We don’t start out thinking ‘This is going to be a sophisticated rock record’ – it’s just the way it goes.” There’s a perceived effortlessness to The National’s sound which places them head and shoulders above many of their peers, seeing them straightforwardly depicted as elder statesmen: wise, unruffled and judicious. Lyrically, too, their songs stand apart from indie rock standards. Berninger’s inkwell is habitually filled with paradoxes: abstract, yet vitriolic; remote, but evocative.

“I don’t write songs line by line,” he explains. “I just write about whatever feels important or the things I’m obsessing over. Sometimes I’m delving into the same dark corners that I have in the past. I don’t say, ‘I want a song about restaurants in the Mid West’. I don’t think that way. I don’t say, ‘I want a song that talks about the rain in England’. I never try to make a clear narrative, it’s more a very blurry train of thought and they can be very hard to connect. Sometimes I wonder if it’s better not to connect them.”

In conversation, too, both Dessner and Berninger have an air of seemliness that many in their profession can’t begin to emanate. Their responses are well-considered and conclusive; they are passionate about what they do and give the impression that they’d happily talk all day about it. But they casually dismiss any notions we have that they are overly refined. “I’m good at the drinking but don’t have a significant palate. I just have a powerful thirst,” says Matt, when it’s suggested he recommend The Skinny a good Merlot. “When I go to a restaurant I pretend to know what I’m doing but I usually order the least expensive. There’s the classic thing that everyone does in ordering the second least expensive bottle on the menu, but that’s where they put the wine they’re trying to get rid of, so I go for the least expensive. It’s mostly better than the other one. People are embarrassed by ordering the cheapest, but it’s usually better than you think.”

The National have come a long way since taking fetid digs in Glasgow, a sentiment highlighted by a recent show at the Royal Albert Hall. But their progress, their excellence and their increasing popularity are tempered with a modesty that’s begotten from a gradual ascent. “Our lives are a lot more comfortable and we’re lucky to be able to survive completely off what we want to do,” says Dessner. “But I could never forget those early days and how tough it was, probably not even if I tried.”

Original photograph by Ross Trevail

National Anthems

From their formative days in Cincinnati to the dizzy heights of Bloodbuzz Ohio, here’s a chronological guide to The National‘s catalogue to date.

The National (2001)

Their self-titled debut rippled the consciousness of few, but for those who heard it, boded well for the Cincinnati outfit. It showcases an Americana influence not revisited substantially on any of the band’s successive releases. It’s comparably inconsistent and the lyrics don’t visit the same depths of Berninger’s more recent work, though it boasts promise amongst a few notable tracks.

Choice Cut: Theory of the Crows

Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003)

This excellent second album was the beginning of their fruitful relationship with producer Peter Katis and the first to rubber-stamp The National’s trademark sound. All at once funny, paranoid and self-deprecating, Sad Songs… is perhaps the most immediate album the band have released to date.

Choice Cut: Fashion Coat

Alligator (2005)

The album that brought The National to our attention, Alligator stands up as one of the most intricate, beautiful and compelling indie releases of our time. Matt Berninger’s abstract yet poetic snippets, sometimes screamed, sometimes crooned, are like daggers through the layered, almost symphonic arrangements of his band.

Choice Cut: Daughters of the Soho Riots

Boxer (2007)

We were worried about how they would follow up Alligator, but there really was no need; more restrained, but arguably more musically sophisticated, Boxer is a lavish, self-contained masterpiece. As with most of their work, this one requires patience, but the rewards are bountiful. Boxer’s critical praise was reflected in its commercial success. Having played Nice ‘n’ Sleazy when they were last in town, suddenly they were selling out the ABC.

Choice Cut: Fake Empire

High Violet (2010)

It seems criminal to attempt an appraisal of High Violet so early, but even after a month in its company, it’s abundantly clear that this is every bit as brilliant as any of its predecessors. The hooks are stronger, arrangements denser and lyrics as elegantly opaque as ever. Once again, The National have seen our expectations and raised them.

Choice Cut: Bloodbuzz Ohio

My Most Listened to Albums of This Year Are…

1. The National – High Violet
2. Deer Tick – War Elephant
3. Clogs – The Creatures in the Garden Of Lady Walton
4. Galaxie 500 – On Fire
5. Band of Horses – Infinite Arms
6. Phosphorescent – Here’s To Taking It Easy
7. Midlake – The Trials of Van Occupanther
8. Townes Van Zandt – Anthology
9. Horse Feathers – Words Are Dead
10. Real Estate – Real Estate

Okay, this is a pretty strange list. I admit, it’s also pretty inaccurate. It’s aggregated using Last FM and is based on the tracks scrobbled from each album. Thing is, this year I’ve been listening to a hell of a lot of music on Spotify, not to mention on my mp3 player. Honestly though, The National’s new album is undoubtedly the one I’ve listened to the most. If it were to include everything else, I think you’d find some Jo Newsom, Kath Bloom and David Thomas Broughton.

It would be interesting to hear what other people have been listening to the most?

S&B Spotify Playlist: March 2010

It’s been a bi-polar kind of month for me, half of which was spent in Manchester, superconnected and the other half, cut-off from the rest of the world in an wi-fi-free Fermanagh (also without my hard drive). It’s funny how quickly I’ve become reliant on my computer and the internet for music. I guess it’s sad, really. I’ve fallen out of the habit of buying cds, granted for financial reasons, but if I were to make a quarter year resolution, then it would be to start up again.
Quarter of a year. It’s not long passing. And this year, I think, has been exceptionally top-loaded with great albums and it’s only going to get better. I had the privilege of interviewing The National yesterday for The Skinny. It’s ahead of the new album, High Violet, which is excellent. I think it’s too early to say whether it’s as good as Alligator or Boxer, given that they were both immensely slow-burning albums, but so far so good. In anticipation, I’ve included Fake Empire from their 2007 classic.

I’ve also been hammering David Thomas Broughton’s album, The Complete Guide to Insufficiency, pretty hard. I see it as a halfway house between Panda Bear and Nick Drake. His subject matter tends to be a tad maudlin, but his voice is overflowing with emotion – as powerful as Antony Hegarty’s. What amazes me is that his debut set was recorded in one take. If you listen to it, you’ll know what I mean. It was recorded in a church, which I think adds a sense of potency or reverence to the sound quality that’s even palpable without knowing where it was laid down. The Complete Guide is five years old now and he’s due to follow it up this year.

I’d never heard of Kath Bloom before this month, when I saw her recommended on a message board, but she’s been releasing records since the 70s. My personal highlight from her new album is here. When I heard this track, I fell in love with her voice. It reminds me of Johnny Cash’s the older he got, in the sense that it’s weary, slightly out of tune at times, but somehow conveys infinite wisdom.

In keeping with the comeback, I’ve included my own highlight from Gil Scott-Heron’s return, the title track from I’m New Here. It’s a cover of a Smog song and when I first heard he was doing that, I was confused and wary: I’m a huge Bill Callahan fan. But it sounds great, and when Gil sings the chorus, his voice doesn’t sound a million miles away from Callahan’s.

Since I’ve spent half the month cut off, I’ve had to make do with the contents of my mp3 player (it’s not very big). I’ve been listening to lots of Electrelane and their first two albums in particular. I think it’s fair to say they got more accessible as they went along. The Valleys, from the Power Out, is the best thing they’ve ever recorded. It’s an operatic choral number that kinda comes out of nowhere. What impresses me most, is how the girls from the band manage to hold their own with the choir. I always thought the vocals on Electrelane tracks were relatively weak. How wrong I was.

There are a few newish tracks here, but most of it is mined from the archives. I wrote about the tragic death of Mark Linkous earlier this month so I won’t do it again. I’ve included a few of my favourite Sparklehorse tracks in the mix too.

Enjoy: Scrawls & Bawls March 2010 Playlist

1. David Thomas Broughton – Unmarked Grave
2. Sparklehorse – Eyepennies
3. Kath Bloom – Like This
4. Jason Lytle – Yours Truly, The Commuter
5. Tindersticks – The Organist Entertains
6. The Unwinding Hours – Solstice
7. Sam Amidon – 1842
8. J. Tillman – Steel on Steel
9. Sparklehorse – Saturday
10. The National – Fake Empire
11. Gil Scott-Heron – I’m New Here
12. Owen Pallett – Lewis Takes Action
13. The Mountain Goats – This Year
14. Uncle Tupelo – Screen Door
15. Local Natives – Wide Eyes
16. Electrelane – The Valleys
17. Sparklehorse – Wish You Were Here

Five of the Best: #9: Me

Well, I finally got around to putting this up. I have had it virtually complete for weeks, but due to various complications and wonderful distractions, haven’t been able to post it online. When I sat down to write it, I had no idea how difficult it would be, so I really appreciate all of the other writers who took the time and effort to donate their Fives. I’ve enjoyed reading all of them as much as I’ve enjoyed writing my own.

Grandaddy – The Sophtware Slump (2000)

When I first heard it

I think it was in 2000, a couple of months after its release. I got Underneath the Weeping Willow on a free cd with either Q or Select and from there, went out and bought the album. I had been getting really into the Beta Band in the year previous to it, which prepared me well for this. I was 15 or 16 at the time and I was simply blown away. I loved everything about it: from the name, to the artwork and, of course, the music. I played this album almost continuously for a year and it still sounds as fresh now as it did then.

Why I love it

It’s ramshackle, beautiful, funny, happy, sad… I could go on. Jason Lytle is a country singer trapped in a skater’s body. He combines the heartstring-tugging balladry of Gram Parsons with the kaleidoscopic vision of Wayne Coyne. These are love songs written for robots, machines, household appliances, aeroplanes, dial-a-views and humanoids. I guess they must be taking the piss on some level, but the songs are so sad and beautiful, it’s impossible not to be taken in by them.

I remember there was a sticker on the cover quoting a magazine’s review: “Easily the equal of OK Computer,” and whilst most of you will think this is OTT, I have to agree. This is one of the most complete albums I’ve ever heard and almost ten years on, I still can’t make it past the first track without breaking into a broad grin. I can’t say that about Airbag.

What it reminds me of

Being a teenager, with a head full of artificial angst. This album reminds me of being grounded and stuck in my bedroom. It reminds me of taking hours over chores that really should have taken five minutes, like hovering the landing or cleaning the bathroom. When I play it really loud, I keep expecting to hear a voice coming up the stairs, telling me to turn it down. It reminds me of lying in my bedroom, leafing through back issues of Q, Select and Hot Press. I used to sprawl out on the bed with this on repeat, probably when I was supposed to be revising for GCSEs or something. I remember lending it to some school friends, who couldn’t get my enthusiasm for it. I didn’t get enthusiastic about much when I was 16, so this must be pretty special.

Standout track

For different reasons I toyed with saying Underneath the Weeping Willow, Jed the Humanoid or Broken Household Appliance, National Forest, but ultimately, I can’t look past the opening track. He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s The Pilot. Quite simply, the finest opening track of an album I’ve ever heard. It’s a little synthy indie rock opera…

“How’s it goin’, 2000 Man?”

Anything else?

I love all of Grandaddy’s albums, but none come close to matching The Sophtware Slump. Lead singer Jason Lytle returned this year with a new album, Yours Truly, The Commuter, which is his best work since.

Interpol – Turn On The Bright Lights (2002)

When I first heard it

I didn’t get this album when it first came out. In fact, I only bought it after I’d heard the follow up, Antics. It was during the last year of my degree in 2004. If any one album has soundtracked my decade, it’s this one. I must have averaged three listens a week since I got it. I was surrounded by people listening to The Killers and Snow Patrol. This came as a godsend.

Why I love it

Played from start to finish, this is one of the most powerful, intense albums you’ll ever hear. I rarely use this word, but it’s awesome. The unforgettable opening bars of Untitled introduce you to an utterly hypnotic world of anxiety, tension and shadows.

In a way, Interpol were the flip side to much of the hyped New York scene of the time. The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs etc, are all great bands, but Interpol offered an alternative view of their city. A dark and sinister, but also a lovely view; away from the revelry and merry-making. The musicianship here is fantastic, the songs are complex, layered and brilliant, and the vocals are delivered starkly and coldly.

I love how Paul Banks can shift his voice from composed and tranquil, to frenzied and terrifying at the drop of the hat. I love how this album is completely loaded with paradoxes. It’s confident and self-contained, yet at the same time, seems wracked with doubt, caught up in a maelstrom of confusion, like the swirling, paranoiac guitars on The New. As a singular composition, this is as close to perfect as I’ve heard.

What it reminds me of

Leaving university and moving to Scotland. When I first went to Edinburgh, my old flatmate and I would often play TOTBL from start to finish at about 7am, after parties. We’d hardly speak a word, coming down with our heads tossed back, nodding to the music. It reminds me of looking out the big bay windows of our Haymarket flat, over the rooftops of Edinburgh, the sun slowly creeping up over the chimneys. There aren’t many sights that can match that, and even the thought of it is enough to give me goosebumps to this day. Unforgettable.

Standout track

The final track Leif Erikson is the perfect conclusion; desperate and resigned, a beleaguered Banks lays down some of the best vocals of the decade.

“It’s like learning a new language…”

Anything else?

When I interviewed the guitarist Daniel Kessler, he was a real prick and sneezed all over himself.

Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004)

When I first heard it

I think around the time I started working in a bar job at the Caledonian Hilton Hotel in Edinburgh. I had been reading lots about Arcade Fire and hadn’t gotten around to hearing Funeral. When I did, I was completely hooked.

Why I love it

At first, I didn’t pay much attention to what this album was about. I was sold on the tunes, the melodies and the enthusiasm, which are incredible. But eventually, it’s impossible to ignore the themes. This is a devastating record, and one that anyone who has lost someone close to them can relate to. I know I can.

There are two ways you can react when something like that happens. You can wallow in self-pity… everyone does this to an extent. You can dig yourself into a little hole and brood over how shit things are, wondering how you’re going to make it through… thinking: “Why me?!”

Or you can take the Arcade Fire route. Bad things will happen. Loved ones will pass and people will move on. But rather than dwelling on losing someone, celebrate the time you had with them. If ever there was a more sparkling tribute to life than Funeral, then it must be pretty fucking spectacular.

What it reminds me of

To me, this is winter in Edinburgh. It reminds me of walking home from work at 6am and waking up and it being dark again. I don’t think I seen more than a few hours of daylight that winter and despite the fact that I was working in a shitty job, surviving hand to mouth and living on my tips, I struggle to think of a time when I had more fun.

Standout track

Neighbourhood #1: Tunnels pretty much sums up why I love this album. It encapsulates the bittersweet, happy-sad dynamic, and is a brilliant tune to dance to.

Anything else?

Arcade Fire are one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen. Watching them at the Barrowlands Ballroom in Glasgow is one of the most electrifying performances of my life. And their cover of Naïve Melody manages to give the Talking Heads a run for their money… no mean feat.

The National – Alligator (2005)

When I first heard it

I didn’t hear Alligator until I seen it popping up on a few End of Year Lists in 2005. I got it in December of that year and listened to it regularly for the next six months.

Why I love it

From the first time I listened to it, right up until now, I can be sure that if I listen to Alligator closely enough, it will reveal something new to me. Matt Berninger, the lead singer, with his gangly posterior and baritone voice, reminds me of some sort of mad professor. A tortured soul, a should-be-bedroom-bound geek, a fucking serial killer, even, who has somehow manifested himself as the whisky-sodden singer of a great rock band. I once read a review of this comparing him to House, the eponymous character of the tv series, and whilst there may be some physical similarities, I think Berninger is much more awkward… much too dark.

He’s the most unlikely of heroes; listening to him give out about his father in law, “ballerina-ing on a coffee table, cock in hand”, demanding his girlfriend to “serve him the sky with a big slice of lemon”, or claiming, in what you interpret as delusion, to be “the Great White Hope”, you can’t help but fall in love with the guy, and initially, he is why I loved Alligator. And that’s before you dissect the musical brilliance on the record. Each of the songs has a central melody, but is embossed with nuance upon nuance of excellence. The curious percussive patterns, the woodwind flourishes, the restrained guitar licks… all of these combine to create a subtle masterpiece.

What it reminds me of

This reminds me of getting the ferry back to Ireland from Stranraer to Belfast. It also reminds me of a massive fall out amongst friends a few years back, soundtracked by Alligator: the loveliest angry record ever to have graced my lugs.

Standout track

As with the others, I could have plumped for any one of half a dozen, but I always keep coming back to Daughters of the Soho Riots. It’s the first National song I play to anyone who hasn’t heard them. Mostly, they love it.

Anything else?

Seeing the band live only confirmed everything I thought about Berninger. He pranced about the stage like an eejit and owned the place. He was the absolute star of the show. It was a shame the tent was empty, but everyone that was there was nodding away with a knowing smile on their face.

Midlake – The Trials of Von Occupanther (2006)

When I first heard it?

I got a free mp3 of Roscoe from Pitchfork and fell in love with it. From there, I got into the album.

Why I love it

Midlake filled a Grandaddy-sized hole in my life. I’ve already written about the Sophtware Slump, and this album reminds me of it a lot (as does their fist album, Bamnan and Silvercork). It doesn’t sound massively like it, and thematically, they’re poles apart – as opposed to robots and gadgetry, Midlake are more preoccupied with 19th Century woodcutters.

But both albums are constructed around the nuances of a society neither band could have had any idea about. They hone in on little, seemingly inconsequential parts of these worlds and fill them with colour. Van Occupanther… has got a real warmness to it: it’s comforting. Tim Smith’s voice is like syrup over the gentle, 70s soft-rock music. The harmonies are understated, everything’s pretty simple, but it’s lovingly and expertly put together. The instrumentation (flutes, piano, violin) is lush – not in a grand, overbearing way, but I guess in the same way a forest is lush…fresh, organic even – which, I think, is exactly what they were going for. This is certainly the most serene, lovely album I’ve heard over the past ten years.

What it reminds me of

Although I’ve played this album regularly, it’s crept into my psyche subconsciously. There was never a time when I was listening to it constantly, but I guess that’s what I love about it… its subtlety. I seen them at Indian Summer in Glasgow in 2006 and Andrew Bird played violin with them. It was one of the best festival performances I’ve seen. I interviewed Andrew Bird a couple of hours later and I think he got a bit pissed off at me because I kept asking him about Midlake.

Standout track

Van Occupanther: probably the simplest song on the album, but a great one nonetheless. The lyrics are inspired.

Anything else?

I was out in a bar once and heard a surprisingly brilliant remix of Roscoe, Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve mix.

Choice Cut Video: The National – Daughters of the Soho Riots