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The National: High Violet
The National’s fifth album, High Violet, was released on 4AD on May 11th, 2010. It was the first to be recorded at the band’s own studio in the Ditmas Park section of Brooklyn, with mixing by long time associate Peter Katis at his Tarquin Studios in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Pulses and impulses pull against each other creating a balance of tension. Let’s call it musical tensegrity: engineered to stand up in unlikely ways, the album is a triumph of sonic architecture; adorned with unexpected, alchemical, and happenstance details, it is an ornamental wonder. Cathartic, raw and reflective, the record reveals ever deeper musical and lyrical wonders with each listen.
Formed in 1999, the Ohio-raised, Brooklyn-based band consists of vocalist Matt Berninger fronting two pairs of brothers: Aaron (guitar, bass, piano) and Bryce Dessner (guitar), and Scott (bass, guitar) and Bryan Devendorf (drums). Their first full-lengths, The National and Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, and a crucial mini-album, Cherry Tree, preceded their signing to Beggars Banquet in 2004. Alligator (2005), included underground anthem “Mr. November,” and raised their profile as the National grew into an incendiary live band. Boxer (2007), featuring songs like “Fake Empire”, “Mistaken For Strangers” and “Start A War,” sold over three times as many copies as its predecessor and saw them transformed from underground stars into an indie rock institution: they began the album cycle opening for the Arcade Fire and with guest appearance on major television shows such as the Late Show with David Letterman. By the time their busy season in support of Boxer came to a close they had become a headline attraction in their own right — REM picked them as a crucial part of a US arena tour; and the Barack Obama campaign turned “Fake Empire” into an unstated anthem for his presidential run, using it in the soundtrack to the promotional video Signs Of Hope And Change, and as background music during his victory rally in Chicago’s Grant Park.
As the first decade of the 21st century came to a close both Boxer and Alligator made countless “album of the decade” lists and their members began to occupy a still larger cultural footprint. In the period between Boxer and High Violet, Aaron and Bryce produced 2009’s Dark Was The Night, a 31-track album to benefit the Red Hot Organization. Featuring contributions from Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, Yeasayer, and many others, the record has raised close to $1,000,000 for numerous AIDS-related charities, including an emergency grant of $150,000 to Haiti’s Partners In Health after that country’s calamitous earthquake. A related Radio City Music Hall concert quickly sold out and found The National performing alongside David Byrne, Dirty Projectors, Feist, and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. Next the Brooklyn Academy Of Music commissioned the brothers to write and perform a 70-minute through-composed song cycle at the Howard Gilman Opera House, accompanying a film by visual artist Matthew Ritchie. The piece – titled The Long Count – was performed by a bespoke orchestra and sung by Matt Berninger, Kim and Kelley Deal (Breeders, Pixies) and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond). More recently, in March 2010, Bryce’s Music Now event, a boutique festival in the band’s hometown, Cincinnati, Ohio celebrated its fifth anniversary, and he co-curated the second annual Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee. Anticipation for The National’s next move has grown to a fever pitch.
“The music for High Violet was made in a parallel time frame to The Long Count so there was some back and forth between the two,” says Aaron. “We were writing and sending stuff to Matt over a period of time.”
“I was stockpiling,” singer Matt Berninger explains. “After all the touring for Boxer, nobody wanted to dive back in to being in a band right away. It took a while to get my brain cooking. Aaron and Bryce always have creative outlets, but my wife and I had a baby girl at the beginning of 2009, so I unplugged from music and focused on family a little. Then gradually I’d walk around writing cornerstones of lyrics for all the sketches they’d sent me. It was a drip-by-drip, trickle-through process.”
What made possible this newly relaxed working method was the construction of the band’s new studio behind Aaron’s old Victorian house. In the summer of 2008, the band decided to invest in improving a garage in his backyard, a long-decaying structure built in the 1920s. “The studio meant things could be done at any pace we wanted,” says Matt. “That the [Dessner] guys had so much on their plate meant less anxiety and more space. There was a different vibe.”
“For the first time, we had access to a really great home studio so we were now creating the shape of the sound-world ourselves,” says Aaron. “We could capture the spontaneity of first takes and preserve the roughness of that but we could also re-do things endlessly if we wanted. The record has texture -- a thick, layered, shifting feel that we discovered through that kind of experimentation. The rawness of the garage recordings also gives the whole thing an important sense of humility.” While many of the songs went through successive generations of evolution, a few are based on Aaron’s original demos, when certain “accidents” couldn’t be recaptured. The striking opening track, “Terrible Love,” was based on an “accidental” guitar sound.
When Matt began sifting through these experiments to pick songs for finishing, he was drawn in different directions than the band had been in the past, both sonically and thematically. “I was attracted to more ugly tones and rhythms, not the usual sweet spots the band has liked,” he says. In giving feedback on the initial tracks, he expressed a desire to hear music that sounded more like “hot tar” or “loose wool.”
A personal, confessional element is intrinsic to Matt’s lyricism, but High Violet’s vocals take a more communal perspective this time out. He explains: “There’s more of an ‘us’ than an ‘I.’ The perspective is less singular. “Maybe that has to do with having a baby and family.” This is most evident on “Afraid Of Everyone”, a chilling response to America’s polarized political & civic cultures. The album’s collective aspect extends to the guest appearances from Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Sufjan Stevens, Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire), Padma Newsome (Clogs), Nico Muhly, and Thomas Bartlett (Doveman) – many of whom contribute to the high-voiced chorus that pops up here and again throughout the record. Some of these contributions were coincidental – the outgrowth of social visits to the neighborhood while the recording took place.
“We started out trying to make a light and happy record, but it just didn't happen,” says Matt. “This album is catchier and more fun than our other records, and bleaker in its ideas and themes.” The first single, “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” is a rip-roaring rock song and an elegy to things the realization that you’ll never be a teenager again. “Conversation 16” hovers on the brink of frustration and doom, “Runaway” is the subtlest of love songs, and “Lemonworld” hails the value of hope, fun and fantasy. “I prefer misquotes to the actual lyrics,” says Matt. “It gives the songs more dimensions when people hear something else...”
“We always agonize over what we’re doing,” says Aaron trying to summarize his thoughts about this music. “It’s not hi-fi and orchestral but at the same time it’s not garage rock, even though ideas from both of those worlds are important elements of what we do. Somehow we create our own little world, and it works, even though sometimes it shouldn’t. The process can be difficult, but eventually something beautiful and cohesive will emerge. Making something heartfelt is our only concern.”
Beyond the aughts-era duality of retromania and neophilia, Longstreth has found the beautiful, generous simplicity of the heart and soul. Same as it ever was. And this must be exactly the place where he’s planted the seeds for his band’s finest album to date.
“It’s an album of songs, an album of songwriting,” says Longstreth.
Another reinvention in a career defined by reinvention, Swing Lo Magellan does what no Dirty Projectors album has done before: it’s about songs. Few songwriters can pull off the challenge to write as simple and direct as possible, and fewer still can do it and be left with something that feels irreducibly personal and idiosyncratic. Swing Lo Magellan gives us twelve such songs, one after another.
The album contains some of the biggest choruses of the band’s career (the explosive and anthemic Offspring Are Blank and Unto Caesar), as well as some of simplest and most disarming (the closer Irresponsible Tune). Gun Has No Trigger is a fever dream of ecstatic paranoia, while Dance For You is a song of searching, spiritual depth (“in the language of Gyptian and Ligeti,” Longstreth suggests). The tender love declared in Impregnable Question would have resonated in any musical era of the last hundred years. The title track Swing Lo Magellan is a gorgeous lament to the night sky. Amber Coffman’s solo turn on The Socialites adds a compelling new layer to her persona. Each of these songs is a world unto itself – one that can be explored endlessly. Indeed, Swing Lo Magellan feels so unique in the context of much of today’s music because it is more about its content than about its frame and reference. It’s more heart than sleeve.
Dirty Projectors was formed in 2003 by David Longstreth, using the moniker to release wildly imaginative albums spanning guitar-based experimental song, scored composition, electronic music, hardcore, and medieval vocal polyphony. The early years of the band featured an evolving cast of musicians, eventually solidifying around Longstreth (vocals & guitar), Amber Coffman (vocals & guitar), Nat Baldwin (bass), Angel Deradoorian (vocals and keyboard) and Brian McOmber (drums). Haley Dekle (vocals) joined in 2009. 2009’s Bitte Orca was Dirty Projectors’ breakout moment, landing them on almost every Album of the Year list in the country and bringing them to five continents over two years. 2009 saw the band collaborating with David Byrne and The Roots, appearing on Late Show with David Letterman and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, as well as playing myriad club shows and international festivals. In 2010, the band collaborated with Björk on the Mount Wittenberg Orca EP, which generated over $60,000 for a National Geographic endeavor to preserve wild ocean reefs. They also presented the 2005 album The Getty Address with 20-piece chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound at Lincoln Center in New York, the Barbican in London and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA, as well as selling out New York’s 3000-cap Terminal 5. At the dawn of 2011, Longstreth began writing songs for the band’s next LP.
The songs of Swing Lo Magellan are culled from a sprawling twelve months of constant writing and recording in a weird house in Delaware County, New York (four hours northwest of the city). Longstreth, who produced and mixed, wrote seventy new songs and beats. The band—Amber Coffman (vocals & guitar), Nat Baldwin (bass), Brian McOmber (drums) & Haley Dekle (vocals) – often joined him, rehearsing the new music more or less constantly in the house’s A-frame attic. (Vocalist Angel Deradoorian is on hiatus). The twelve songs of Swing Lo Magellan were winnowed down from about forty finished demos. The finished recordings bear the impress of this informal working style: the album is a collection of moments: accidental, fortuitous, spontaneous. The performances feel warm and imperfect. Unguarded intimacy is somewhat of a new look for this band, and it turns out it’s a very good look.
The sound of this album is totally unique—with an aesthetic that explodes in two directions at once. The grain of the voices and live-in-the-room quality of the amps contrast the rich orchestral layering of Longstreth’s arrangements for contemporary ensemble yMusic, the warmth of the bass and the sheen and blast of the beat programming.
Swing Lo Magellan is an album that comes from the hearts of one of the most fearlessly cerebral bands of the last ten years. The album has both the handmade intimacy of a love letter and the widescreen grandeur of a blockbuster, and if that sounds like a paradox—it’s because it was until now.