Thursday, May 24, 2007

The National Interest

This guy has an admirable, if geeky, goal—he’s blogging every R.E.M. song. Not quite as ambitious as an album for every state, but still a hefty job of work. Sure, every reasonably popular band has one or more of those lousy “stories behind every song” books written about them, but those are inevitably just cash-in fan junk pasted together from interviews—this is more of a labor of love. I suspect some of you may recall that I was once quite the fan, back in the Clinton era; I had to suppress the urge to start posting comments immediately. (Hey, why all the hating on “Wendell Gee?” Pretty tune! Banjo! What more do you want? And “Can’t Get There From Here” is clearly the worst song on that album.)

Anyway, I could totally do that with Radiohead, but I’m sure that about 17,000 very serious teenagers already have. I might do it anyway; I’m smarter than those damned kids.

Plenty of non-nineties music to write about, though. It’s been a good spring, and it just got better. I got the Wilco album, and so far I’m pretty happy with it. It’s very easygoing and approachable, superficially nothing like the scary, sandblasted vibe of A Ghost Is Born. So—going back to the nineties for a moment—if Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was the “difficult but acclaimed” album, the OK Computer, if you will, and Ghost Is Born was the “pseudo-avant-garde-nervous-breakdown” album, the Kid A, then in theory this record should be Hail to the Thief. And frankly, I’m not hearing it. No “Myxomatosis” or “Wolf at the Door” here, just lots of laid-back tunes and really, really well-produced guitar playing. So maybe we can all relax about Wilco, is what I’m saying, and so much the better. They’re going to be okay!

(And yes, of course, that means that Summer Teeth is The Bends. Why wouldn't it be? "She's a Jar" = "Fake Plastic Trees." Obviously. Why is this so hard for you people?)

You may now get excited about the National, however, If you hadn’t already—I keep trying to force them on people. “You just haven’t seen my good side yet,” Matt Berninger pleaded anxiously on Alligator, their really excellent 2005 album, and he was pretty much exactly right. He was definitely not singing about his good side, and it was great. Alligator was dark, and funny, and seductive—thirteen songs spent in the very entertaining company of people you normally wouldn’t want to be in a room with. But Berninger may have been more right than he meant to be, because Boxer came out this week, and it may very well be better. I haven’t been able to stop listening to “Fake Empire,” the first song, since I downloaded it a month or two ago. (First of all, I’m a sucker for that whole three-over-four rhythm thing they do when the drums kick in—real muscians are no doubt completely unimpressed, but for me that works every time; it always feels like the song is trying desperately to fall into place and can’t quite do it.) They can play. And this guy can write, and he can sing. No spectacular vocal acrobatics here—for you nineties fans, Berninger’s cracked baritone is a distant descendant of the late lamented Mark Sandman’s (of Morphine) and today the closest match seems to be Britt Daniel of Spoon. But Spoon is inseparable from their icy, perfect minimalism—they’re the American indie-rock band as expensive brushed-aluminum coffeemaker; the National’s music is lusher, darker, and more romantic, and Berninger’s lyrics are more anxious and more arresting. “Tired and wired we ruin too easy,” and “it’s hard to keep track of you falling through the sky,” and other weird and startling things that leap out at you as you listen. I’m still working my way into it. Somebody else get this, so we can argue about it.

(Also, that's a disturbing cover. I didn't have a wedding, but if I had, I'm not sure I would have invited the National to play. Might, you know, freak out the squares, what with all the songs about stalking. And drinking. And dancing naked on the coffee table.)


Guinevere said...

"Fake Empire" clearly has merits, so I decided to accept your dare and purchase the album. Problem -- in my area I was apparently attempting to purchase unpurchaseable music.

Matt said...

iTunes! (Or, even cheaper, eMusic.) It's not an album with particularly fancy packaging, anyway, so you wouldn't be missing much. They don't even print the lyrics.