THE NATIONAL with CLOUDROOM at the Horseshoe (368 Queen West), Wednesday (March 22). $10.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
The National are getting use to backhanded compliments.
Bassist/guitarist Aaron Dessner says he's heard everything from people calling singer Matt Berninger's voice an "acquired taste" to their latest record, Alligator, affectionately referred to as a "grower," something that grows on you over repeated listens and becomes a sleeper hit.
With so many arty Brooklyn bands receiving hair-trigger critical approval right out of the gates, the National could do worse than being just another hype explosion everyone instantly praises before abandoning. In fact, Dessner sort of relishes this dark horse distinction.
"It's taken us longer to build a following," says Dessner on break from a rehearsal session at the band's compound in Brooklyn. "More people buy the record now then at the beginning, which is almost a year after the fact. I like that better than it all happening quickly then dying off. People who get into it really do get into, and get obsessed, which is both exciting and strange."
Right now a healthy number of the National's psychotically obsessed fans reside in the UK. After Beggars Banquet released Alligator, British tastemaker magazine Uncut promoted the thickly layered slice of Americana pie to album-of-the-month status. Soon after, the National's anthems were being hailed up and down the Isles.
That gave the five-year-old band, whose members (brothers Aaron and guitarist/bassist Bryce Dessner, brothers guitarist/bassist Scott and drummer Bryan Devendorf, singer Matt Berninger) originally met in Cincinnati, their first palpable feeling of career progression, albeit a slightly painful one.
"In Dublin it seemed like the audience practically knew every word," says a mystified Dessner. "They even kept singing along well after we were done playing the song, and we're not a singalong kind of band. When we played Mr. November, which is on the album, the crowd was singing along so loud it actually hurt my ears. Normally, it's my amplifier doing that."
The songs on Alligator are intricate, with densely layered guitars, and Berninger delivers his abstract lyrical stories in an uplifting rasp. Not an immediately pleasant vocal style, it takes repeated listens before it starts to "grow" on you, but Berninger is an impressive wordsmith, creating mini-fictions and characters that resonate beyond a memorable chorus.
Although the semi-fictional scenarios in his lyrics aren't entirely original, such as heartbreak in Karen or lovers' intimacy in Baby, We'll Be Fine, the characters Berninger crafts bring them to life. He's often compared to notoriously wobbly Guided by Voices singer Robert Pollard, with whom Berninger apparently shares more than just a taste for the literary.
"Matt definitely drinks when he writes lyrics," acknowledges Dessner, while maintaining the band isn't impeded by dipsomania. "I guess you could say alcohol is somewhere in the background of what we do. We all drink and enjoy having a good time, but it's not excessive. There are no alcoholics in the band. We put performing first."
The National recently got to knock a few back with the Boss. Springsteen showed up inconspicuously at a fundraising tribute to his lauded eight-track classic, Nebraska, at which the National nervously performed. Backstage after the show, the Boss said he liked their work, and not in a flippant, generous, nice-gesture way.
"He went straight up to my brother and said he loved our band and had all our records," says Dessner incredulously. "We convinced him to hang out and drink whisky with us for over an hour. It was really surreal, because he was so down-to-earth and he knew our music so well.
"It's funny, because Uncut originally bumped us for his record as album of the month. We were bummed about it it's kind of a big deal in England. They changed their minds a day later, but at the time we thought, "At least we're bumped for Bruce Springsteen. '"