The National; The Broken West

May 29, 2007

Are The National one of the best rock bands working today? Yes. Is their new record, Boxer, one of the best of the year so far? Definitely. Are they known for their signature exuberantly focused tension-release brilliance during live performances? Sure, though I just made that one up. (But you know what I mean.)

So then what the fuck happened last night at the Bowery?

Things started out within normal limits, though quietly, gently, as might have been expected given the tone of their new record, Boxer, with the excellent, “Start a War;” the band sounded spot on. But then things began to deteriorate with no apparent warning. It was a heart-breaking scene, like watching some brilliant actor in some crap play.

After listening to Boxer, you might suspect things would be different. After all, do you ever love like your first love (aka. Alligator for many)? The songs are more subtle and intimate sounding, and though there are beauties on the record (from “Slow Show” to “Guest Room”), there is no “Abel” or “Mr. November” which fit the National’s live performance modus operandi so perfectly well. “Mistaken for Strangers” was the closest new material approximation of that National energy we’ve come to expect, and even the aforementioned Alligator tracks (including the song that could do no wrong, “Secret Meeting”) fell a little flat.

It’s tempting to blame the technicalities: though the Bryan is in full stand-out control of Boxer, the drums were a little too loud; Matt wasn’t loud enough, the backing vocals were too loud; where were Bryce’s guitars in the mix; and most importantly where was the old viola/violin player that looked a bit like a weathered sailor? He was awesome. Still, I get the sense that the translation of Boxer from record to live show is still a work in progress.

So there, it’s said. I still endorse the notion that the National are the best band in America, and recognize that even supermen are allowed to have an off night. But upon further review, the play still stands.

Let the death threats begin…

Listen: “Murder Me Rachel” from Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, and “Cold Girl Fever” from The National, both available on Brassland.


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