Friday, December 23, 2005

Best of the Year (Part 2)

One album glaringly absent from Pitchfork's Top 50 2005 is The National's subtle and ambitious third-album, Alligator. This album is best on a dark day in summer. Their sound is all kinds of Americana, blending a Springsteen-esque twang with modern rock asethtic. They sound like a little a quiet, suburban-version of Interpol. They're not always quiet though, given to big tear-jerking guitar-driven ballads and effects-heavy songs laden with heartbreaking lyrics. Their stories romanticize the mundane (office work and cross-country travels) and sound off longingly about far-off ideas like astronauts and spies.

Their primary weapon is their lead singer's passionate voice, deep and Morrisey-ish with a hint (a whisper) of raspy Tom Waits-style vox. Their guitars sound like good old American Gibsons. Their drummer is competent and not show-offy. Showing off would be unprofessional and these guys are anything but. They shed the idea of being a "rock band" and instead go about music as it really is: a job. A job they've gotten good at after two well-recieved albums and one EP. Their confidence in this album seem to be half about being sure of themselves after gaining some experience and half pure inspiration. There's a swagger and chillness here that is absent from a lot of other albums this year that seem to either try too hard or try too little. The National have struck the middle ground: They try just enough, without being late or messing up their hairdos.

The first time I heard them was on a live radio show through KEXP some afternoon at my last job. It was a special week of NYC shows for the Seattle-based radio station. They were a little late to the show, all of them coming in on their lunch break from their "regular" jobs. They spoke about not wanting to be a (quote/unquote) rock band and how it's good to be like normal people most days of the week. They go to work, they write some songs, they go home to their girlfriends or wives. They seem like the most functional and down-to-earth band since Death Cab for Cutie.

There's a lot to love about Alligator. Certain sound combinations and bridges and intros are magical and inspiring. They - like most bands these days - embrace the techonological sleekness available but keep it at a minimum-flourish, their music is caked in earth tones. It's very refreshing, I think, from the flashy-ness of a lot of the rest of standouts from this year. Their lyrical strength is surprising, casual, almost literary, dialouge that rings so true: "Well, whatever you do / Listen, you better wait for me / No, I wouldn't go out alone into America;" "I don't have any questions / I don't think it's gonna rain / You were right about the end / It didn't make a difference;" "I was in a train under a river when I remembered what / What I wanted to tell you, man / What I wanted to tell you, man / I got two sets of headphones, I miss you like hell / Won't you come here and stay with me / Why don't you come here and stay with me;" "Hey, love, we'll get away with it / We'll run like we're awesome, totally genius / Hey, love, we'll get away with it / We'll run like we're awesome."

Alligator is wonderful because it is mutuable. You can hear it how you chose. Either as a dour reminder of the weakening state of American middle-class reality or a fist-pumping outcry against conformity. There are songs that positively scream with restrained agression while other songs seem surfacely sad, but contain within them real truth that threatens to break your heart, but instead repairs it.


Anonymous said...

Elad: Alligator is going to be on my top 10 list, which I'll post next week. It's going to be at least as high as $3. It's brilliant. Thanks for the thoughtful post about one of America's best bands.


Elad said...

Thank YOU, Jeff, for reading!

I'm looking forward to your list with a lot of anticipation.

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