Thursday, December 13, 2007

The National @ Crystal Ballroom

By Vandoren Wheeler

It takes a couple tries to get the band’s name into someone else’s head.
“The National.”
“The Nationale?” (they add an extra letter, thinking French might give it more meaning).
“No, just The National.” The funny look means they are still waiting for you to finish your sentence.
“The national what?”
How can you describe an adjective floating around without a noun to land on? Yet there is a form of genius in this vagueness. It gets the mind moving, but doesn’t let it settle. It could be the beginning of a familiar phrase: The national anthem, or the start of a sentence: The national trend toward less light pollution…in any case, the band’s music emerges from the mystery of its name with a clarity that captivates me.
On the advice of a trusted friend with a band-suggestion-success-rate of approximately 88%, I bought their CD Boxer the old-fashioned way about two weeks before the show. I don’t think I listened to another album until their performance. Normally, a worry of wearing off the sheen of initial sonic joy keeps me from listening to a new album obsessively. But an urgency to more fully prepare myself for the spectacle compelled me to let these songs soak in as deeply as possible before I heard them rendered live.
When a good friend told me she can’t get into the band yet because “his voice sounds like the guy from Crash Test Dummies,” I prickled at the notion that that’s the extent of her baritone associations. If you yourself want a baritone primer, start with Leonard Cohen; when ready, move onto Stuart Staples (of the Tindersticks), and then add some Barry White for diversity, or if you need what an acquaintance of mine once called White’s music: “panty solvent.” I don’t know—maybe it’s a guy thing: the thrumming of a deep voice we can approach, but not quite reach with our own.
Matt Berringer, the lead singer of The National, has a voice with a richness that makes truffles taste like cheap Hershey’s. He sings with a casual ease that tricks me into thinking I can sing along with him. The sound of it (his voice, not mine) is both calming and exhilarating. And his voice creates so much weight, it requires a good amount of instrumentation to keep it from sinking down below the surface of the song’s river.
Lead, rhythm, and bass guitar, and percussion, are supported by violins, trombone, keyboards, an occasional cello…the list goes on. Berringer’s voice sways low in its range while the music filigrees around and above it. The balance the two elements find is always weighted with melancholy, yet manages to float forward in an earned beauty. The thoughtful, clever lyrics, though decidedly sad, give me hope, since even though we are “half-awake in a fake empire,” recognizing it means we are at least on our way to waking up (“Fake Empire” from Boxer).

Minutes into The National’s set, I was transfixed. The first song built up to an astounding crescendo that turned out to simply be the foundation for the true climax. These guys don’t just play music; they are musicians. What I mean is, they approach what they do as a both a craft and an art. I adore Wolf Parade and bands of that ilk, but I’d say they care more for the verve and slosh of making music than the discipline of honing sound toward perfection. The National has not only found a unique sound, but has crafted it into an elegant and articulate precision. Another reason to admire The National’s obvious talent is that it superceded the acoustical limitations of the Crystal Ballroom, which isn’t always easy.
I don’t remember which song lifted up in my mind an image of heaven, something like a scaffolding of light. Imagine one of those models they make for urban planning: the delicate, balsa-wood buildings and tiny trees. Now imagine one for heaven, made of translucent water, or crystallized sugar, or braided joy-- whatever does it for you. For just a moment, that’s what this band did: lifted up above the crowd a sculpture of heaven.
No, I doubt the band sees it this way. But God’s glory rarely asks our permission to express itself.
The beauty of the music-- which comes from attentive listening and responding, listening and responding-- unearths a fragment of Eden’s perfection. Their sound is an approximation of praise, or the sound we will hear (become?) as we take the sadness of our lives and turn it into praise for our creator, when we are no longer limited by our feeble music educations, by our own doubts that we have the talent, time, or discipline to make music.
The sound they made that night was just so large. What I heard felt bigger than the mouths and instruments I saw in front of me; what they came up with was greater than the sum of its parts. Now, I realize what is so beautiful about a band is that it requires many people. No one person can create this, and when listening to the most moving moments of their songs, I needed to be more people to take it in; this is why what’s inside sometimes swells beyond the borders of my body. I could hear the sound myself, through the friends I went to the concert with, and through the joy in the faces of strangers singing something I’ve been needing to hear: “…so worry not, all things are well, we’ll be alright…” If you were there, I hope you remember it well. If not, come along next time.

--Vandoren Wheeler

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