The National

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."

Question: just how do you go about trying to match an album as peerless, wholly immersive, and as widely acclaimed and adored as Daughter's 2013 debut 'If You Leave?' Simple: up the ante on every level. Building on that record's gloriously dark intensity, wracked emotion and come-hither diaphanous textures, 'Not To Disappear,' the new full-length release from the London-based trio -- singer/guitarist Elena Tonra, guitarist/producer Igor Haefeli and drummer Remi Aguilella -- is a mighty declaration of intent. Profoundly ruminative and lugubrious, bold and direct, it's arguably even more assertive and compelling than its much-lauded predecessor.

Produced by Haefeli and Nicolas Vernhes (Animal Collective, Deerhunter, The War On Drugs), 'Not To Disappear' finds Daughter evolving in interesting ways. Recorded in New York, at Vernhes' studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, there are the usual intricate dynamics at play -- Tonra's gauzy, fragile voice, delivering powerful, anguished words detailing her inner turmoil, fusing seamlessly with Haefeli's tight, melodic guitar sounds and Aguilella's rolling drums -- but the sound, oozing with depth and resonance, feels infinitely richer. It's properly intoxicating stuff: "Numbers" soars and swoops through exhilarating crescendos, as Tonra recites the song's mantra -- "I feel numb/I feel numb in this kingdom" -- over and over; and "Fossa," like some majestic convergence of Radiohead and Sigur Rós, is possibly one of Daughter's most euphoric moments yet.

"A lot of it started with individual ideas," says Tonra. "Igor would write some instrumental stuff, and I would go away and write more tracks, learning how to use Logic, and how to realise something in a fuller way than just guitar and voice. As it moved along it went through various stages, sounding better and better."

The signature motifs are still very much in evidence, but there's a real sense of the trio opening up to new ideas. Although making the record wasn't the easiest of rides, co-producer Vernhes was key in bringing the group out of themselves. "Nicolas was wonderful," says Tonra. "We'd been living in London, and demoing and writing here -- we're perfectionists, pulling in different directions -- so it was really beneficial to go somewhere else to record it, just for a change of scene. Working with Nicolas was a real injection of energy."

"I'm a control freak, so it's hard to let go," adds Haefeli, "but I found a lot in common with him, as much in our positive sides as in our faults. He brought a quality of recording that wouldn't have been possible otherwise. And he's just a fun person to be around."

Haefeli has spoken previously about wanting to expand the band's sound into increasingly widescreen realms, and 'Not To Disappear' duly bigs it up; this time, there's distinctly more dramatic ebb and flow, as quiet intimacy lurches into thrilling kaleidoscopic expanses, noticeably more epic and ambitious in scope than the Daughter of just a couple of years ago. "To me, music is like a very fragile Jenga," he says. "You move one piece, then you have to move another piece to balance it. Elena is much more of a 'pure' artist -- for her, it's always about capturing the 'moment'. In that way, we're polar opposites, but I think that's what brings some of the magic to it."

Magic is right: this time, Daughter feel like an entirely new, different and increasingly fearless proposition, the alchemy of their music -- more resonant and emphatic, even louder in places -- somehow doubly alluring. They go flat-out and turn up the volume throughout, as Haefeli's beefed-up, majestic guitar lines surge and reverberate with renewed urgency and purpose, cut through by Aguilella's unflinchingly muscular, red-blooded drumming -- all of it gilded by a gorgeous electronic undertow.

The lyrics -- always Tonra's domain -- are more forthright, too, an even more honest reflection of her ever-questioning state of mind. "Expressing your emotions isn't a weakness but a real strength," she says, somehow empowered, her new-found confidence palpable. "I think with this album, there's less hiding. I used to hide a lot of my themes in poetry, but now, there's no veil.

"The first song we wrote for the record, 'New Ways,' was like opening another window. The album title comes from that song, and for me, as the lyricist, it's an important message. The older I get, the more I'm saying 'this is who I am'."

'Not To Disappear' has its unexpected bursts of uptempo energy, as on the propulsive stomp of "No Care" -- consciously striving to mix things up, and about as lyrically direct and embittered ("There's only been one time where we fucked, and i felt like a bad memory") as Tonra has ever been. "I go around collecting memories and feelings, and when I press record, stuff just... spills."

"Drifting apart like two sheets of ice" sings Tonra wistfully on "Winter" (from 'If You Leave'), and lyrically, it's an over-arching motif that carries through here, with loss, alienation and loneliness as prevalent themes. On "Alone/With You" in particular, she's brutally forthright ("I hate sleeping with you/Just a shadowy figure with a blank face/Kicking me out of his place"), laying bare her innermost feelings and neuroses. "Writing has always been a bit cathartic for me," she admits. "It's almost therapeutic -- I don't know how I would be if I didn't write."

Famously guarded about revealing the meaning to her lyrics, the singer remains keen to retain a little mystique ("I never want to explain things too much -- what I've said in the song is the most I want to say, and the rest is up for interpretation"), but, emotionally unshackled, she seems less worried these days about how her words might be interpreted. "It's a little bit 'fuck you' now," she says, bristling with defiance. "The new songs came out in a way where my writing was different from before. Initially, it freaked me out because I thought I had writer's block, but I realised it was just how my brain was working.

"On this record, I've gone to places I maybe wouldn't have been that comfortable with before. I guess there are a lot more sexual references, that kind of lonely interpretation of sex -- I don't know if many other people have spoken about it that way. But I thought, if my brain isn't trying to hide this stuff, then it obviously means I should talk about it. It feels like I'm being braver, which is liberating."



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