Words by: Cal Roach
The National :: 09.21.07 :: Pabst Theater :: Milwaukee, WI
The National is clearly one of the indie critics' darling bands of 2007. Writers are falling over themselves romanticizing Matt Berninger's deep, gravelly voice, and you'll see the word "subtle" (hipster code for "if you think it's boring, you don't get it") in every review of their latest full-length, Boxer. The Brooklyn-based quintet has been gaining momentum quickly since its 2005 release, Alligator, won favor with critics and fans alike, and Boxer is poised to sweep Best-Of lists this year. However, The National's live show in the posh confines of the Pabst Theater fell short of the hype, sacrificing much of the eerie atmosphere of their albums in favor of derivative, underwhelming post-rock clichés.
| Matt Berninger|
Especially heavy on Boxer material, many of the band's attempts to energize the songs for an undeniably appreciative crowd amounted to Mogwai-lite. The format was established quickly, building to an unimpressive crescendo on opener "Start A War" and following a similar pattern for "Slow Show" and "Squalor Victoria." The group gets points for not playing by the book but the players clearly need more time to develop a distinctive instrumental style. It's hard to fault a band for borrowing from U2 anymore, but Bryce Dessner's guitar on "Mistaken For Strangers" and "About Today," freed from studio trickery, revealed their straight, mid-80's Edge influence. And "Secret Meeting" veered dangerously close to Coldplay territory. Meanwhile, Berninger's voice was steady and confident, but it's nearly impossible not to hear The Church's Steve Kilbey in his low moan. He provided some real excitement with intense vocals on "Abel," and was only undermined on "Racing Like A Pro" when his muted staccato stunted the tropical flow of the tune.
The occasional use of violin helps earn The National comparisons to the Arcade Fire, but the instrument's appearance in "All The Wine" came off as little more than a minor sound effect, and the elementary-school accompaniment during "Racing" and "About Today" was totally ineffectual.
| The National|
Opening act St. Vincent came out to add some effective backing vocals for the first encore, "Green Gloves," which contained some touching moments but was ultimately sabotaged by Berninger's spastic outbursts, which recalled former tour mates Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. The tune was a telling example of the stylistic disparities that have blended well on The National's albums but haven't quite gelled live. However, none of these inconsistencies mattered to the rapturous crowd. The bottom line for most fans is this band has some very good songs, a singer with an effective stage presence and a sound whose time is now. Their performance really only pales in comparison to bands who have done the same things better before them. The National is by no means a bad band, just one that needs to take its obvious influences and develop something truly original, which it could well be on track to do.
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