The National, a Brooklyn-based indie outfit that started in Ohio, took the political plunge in '08 when they threw their support behind the presidential candidacy of Barrack Obama. The band sold a t-shirt featuring Obama's image above the words "Mr. November," a reference to the song of the same name on '06's "Alligator" and the date of the presidential election (the first Tuesday in November). All proceeds went to the Obama campaign. In addition, the song "Fake Empire" was used extensively (with permission) during the Democrat's winning campaign. So where was the Republican backlash?
The National's history goes back nearly a decade earlier when singer/songwriter Matt Berninger hooked up with a pair of brothers - Aaron (guitar, bass and piano) and Bryce Dessner (guitar) & Scott (bass and guitar) and Bryan (drums) Devendorf.
Their first effort, "S/T" landed in '01 and didn't do much other than lead to more live shows. '03's "Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers," the first with producer Peter Katis, earned critical approval. Following the "Cherry Tree" EP in '04, the group went through some changes. Their albums had been released on a label owned by band members. This was a time consuming effort to say nothing of the constant distribution and promotional headaches. In addition, the revenue stream was so shallow that band members had to hang on to day jobs. So the decision was made to move to the Beggars Banquet imprint.
"Alligator" was the group's debut on the label and it sold a respectable 70,000 units. Next up was "Boxer" which led to late night TV appearances (Letterman, Ferguson) and a couple songs (including "Fake Empire") landed in TV shows. Then there was the tour opening for R.E.M. - along with Modest Mouse.
The Vincent Moon documentary "A Skin, A Night" followed the group as they recorded "Boxer" and performed a London show. Also in '08, they issued another EP "The Virginia."
Following Obama's election, the Dessner brothers produced "Dark Was The Night," a compilation to benefit the Red Hot Organization. The group also performed on behalf of several charity organizations.
Then it was back to the studio to lay down tracks for '10 release "High Violet," with the lead track "Terrible Love." "We're really critical of ourselves," said Aaron. "And we spend a lot of time destroying and re-recording tracks. We're all about making the record better."
"High Violet" went to #3 eventually selling 285,000 copies in the U.S. and a little more than that internationally. As a result, The National picked up the Best Album trophy at the '10 Q Awards, presented by Q magazine in the U.K..
Two years later, the group recorded The Rains Of Castamere for the HBO TV show Game of Thrones (Season 2 - "Blackwater" episode) and "I'll See You In My Dreams" for another HBO series, Boardwalk Empire.
Prior to the release of The National's sixth album, "Trouble Will Find Me," the group premiered the documentary Mistaken for Strangers, at New York City's Tribeca Film Festival. The film chronicled Tom Berninger' journey touring with the band. Tom is Matt's brother.
2001 The National
2003 Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers
2010 High Violet
2013 Trouble Will Find Me
As happens on occasion, the album that gets the most recognition is not the group's best. "Alligator" is more accomplished and better than "Boxer." While the latter does contain "Fake Empire," where Berninger seems to channeling the Crash Test Dummies' Brad Roberts, the set doesn't have "Alligator's punch or sense of humor.
You gotta love a song about "secret meetings in the basement of my mind" ("Secret Meetings"). "Mr. November," "Looking For Astronauts" and "Baby We'll Be Fine" make "Alligator" distinctive. Aside from "Fake Empire," "Boxer's" calling cards are "Mistaken For Strangers" and "Start A War." After that, it's slim acoustic pickings.
"High Violet" oscillates between moody yet sincere ballads and '80s Wave. "Anyone's Ghost" is the prime example of the latter. This is a good place for The National to be. Berninger, with a little energy behind him on "Lemonworld" and "Conversation 16" keeps the angst and paranoia without letting it control the song. He also proves capable of an impressive vocal turn with a low-key Billy Idol shot on "Bloodbuzz Ohio."
As with "High Violet," The National often inhabits a dark corner on "Trouble Will Find Me." And despite the occasional flash of brilliance ("Don't Swallow The Cap"), the tendency is to leave them there. However, when they rouse themselves good things happen. "Sea Of Love," "Humiliation" and the Rockabilly "Graceless" cut the sadness and trepidation.