The National is one of those bands that took a while to click with me. When a lot of people I knew were raving about how great their album Alligator was, I listened and thought, “Well, that’s OK, but it all sort of sounds the same.” I listened a number of times, unpersuaded but still curious. My initial reaction to the National’s latest record, Boxer, was pretty similar, but then after a few listens, I finally got it. There’s something perfect about the way this band arranges its songs. They’re all so taut and tensely played, within a narrow framework. In a way, it sounds understated, with vocalist Matt Berninger flattening out melodies that could leap higher. The songs almost sound like sketches for bigger and more dramatic productions. But the more you listen, the more those big and dramatic moments reveal themselves as actually present in the music. And it no longer seems quite so understated.
The band came to Chicago’s Vic Theatre last night (Sept. 22) for a sold-out show, and it was an almost perfect representation of what the National is all about. Yes, some of it did seem understated and tightly controlled, as Berninger and the four musicians all kept within their zones, each playing his part perfectly. The emphasis on groove reminds me a little bit of the Feelies, but not in a way that actually resembles the Feelies sonically. It’s as if the National have adapted the philosophy of the Feelies for a completely different sound. The delicate interplay between the instruments reminds me of Midlake, and the simmering passion reminds me of a slightly dialed-down Arcade Fire. And yes, there was passion. Especially as the show went on, the band let loose on several songs. Berninger even began throwing around his microphone stand. It wasn’t exactly an Iggy Pop moment, but for a band that originally seemed so restrained to me, it was further proof that there’s a lot more going on in the National. See my photos of the National.
Last night was also the third time this year I’ve seen St. Vincent as an opening act this year. Man, she has been getting some primo opening-act slots. First, I saw her open for Midlake at Schubas, then she played before the Arcade Fire at the Chicago Theatre, and now here she is playing with the National. Unlike the Chicago Theatre gig, she was back to her solo act, using looping pedals to build layers in some of her songs. She sounded quite strong last night, channeling rock guitar heroes and cabaret chanteuses into her own singular art rock. She tossed in a cover of the Beatles’ “I Dig a Pony,” announcing, “I wrote this song way back in 1969.” See my photos of St. Vincent.