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The National Explores the Beautiful and Wild Inside On ‘Sleep Well Beast'

Music ReviewAarik DanielsenComment
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Some bands can’t help but sound like a place.

Whether it is in guitars that sound like the Sunset Strip five minutes before trouble, harmonies that feel like a damp Pacific Northwest, or grooves that drip like the faucets in a dirty Delta bar, these acts always take you somewhere, avoiding the tourist traps and surrounding you with setting.

Another type of band is just as evocative, yet the places it occupies and pre-occupies exist within a body, not outside it.

These artists, typified by a band like Radiohead, sound like the scrambled thoughts of an anxious mind, the rhythms of a quickened pulse, the weight of life as it sits squarely within the chest. These interior settings are immediately recognizable to listeners who regularly visit them, often with reservations.

The National belongs to that second company of artists. The Brooklyn band’s songs sound like a mind turned inside-out, a soul yearning for relief — sometimes in screams, sometimes in sighs. Sleep Well Beast, The National’s seventh record, continues in that vein, yet accesses refreshingly acute angles on what might be its most beautiful work yet.

Album opener “Nobody Else Will Be There” joins a gentle pulse and plaintive piano. Its atmospheric rock feels like a modern take on Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain” until frontman Matt Berninger’s baritone enters the mix to remind you who you’re dealing with. “Day I Die,” another backlit standout, follows. Drummer Bryan Devendorf thunders along while the band around him brings the electric lightning to the storm. Berninger still is coping with existential matters, but clearly he has taken a few steps forward.

He delivers a compelling bridge lyric: “Let’s just get high enough to see our problems / Let’s just get high enough to see our fathers’ houses.” Set this against the sentiments of one of The National’s signature songs, “Afraid of Everyone,” from 2010’s High Violet; There he sank into the mantra “I don’t have the drugs to sort it out.” By comparison, it sounds like Berninger is doing more than just getting by or high with a little help from his friends.

From there, The National deepens and widens its sound. Rather than reside in a rut or attempt to jolt itself into mid-career reinvention, the band shifts by degrees, surprising faithful listeners by finding very different ways to stave off the same problem. The band inches further and further from orthodoxy on tunes like “Walk it Back” and “I’ll Still Destroy You.” The former uses electronic sounds in a stimulating way, creating a sort of pulsating sonic light. The latter is more percussive, leaning into the new-music interests of guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner, achieving a sort of modal, exotic peal.

The band makes use of a more standard deviation on single “The System Only Sleeps in Darkness,” wearing the clothes of a more straight-ahead rock band. Glitchy riffing gives way to a proper guitar solo, a sort of novelty on the band’s records. The track does start with a few bars of madrigal cooing, so it’s not like The National suddenly have sacrificed to the gods of stadium rock.

Late in the tracklist, the band lands a 1-2 punch that is as quietly devastating as anything it has ever recorded. “Guilty Party” is the sound of trying to connect. Over booming drum sounds, the band’s jagged instrumentals even resemble the static of trying to dial up and dial in.

The song gives way to “Carin at the Liquor Store,” one of a few songs to grow from waltzing piano. Here the sound of the instrument contains both shadow and light. Both songs have the power to cut deep; stacked together, the sweet ache is unavoidable.

None of this — Berninger’s sad-eyed ecstasies, the Dessner Brothers’ cinematic visions — works without Bryan Devendorf’s drumming. One of the most reliable, underrated players of his generation, Devendorf truly provides the band’s heartbeat, whether in a melancholy waltz meter or a desperate crash of rock and roll.

The only thing keeping “Sleep Well Beast” from contending for the class of the band’s catalog is middling rocker “Turtleneck.” The National has proved it can growl and thrash when it gets the itch — “Mr. November” is the band at its loudest and best. The ill-conceived “Turtleneck,” however, comes up short on both style and substance.

It seems ridiculous to cast The National as some sort of rock oracle, but in 2017 it seems the rest of us are just now catching up to the sort of low-grade paranoia and restlessness the band’s songs have incarnated. Here it taps into even more shades of tension. The National wrestles with the personal, with needing landmarks, even crumbling ones, to find your way in the world. Weather patterns, fuzzy memories — these things anchor Berninger’s lyrics and help him make sense of things.

They wriggle around in the grip of the political, questioning how to act for the common good when you’re barely keeping your own house in order. The songs here seem to ask “How do you prepare for the end of the world when you just keep coming to the end of your rope?”

The band’s inward gaze still is a welcome one, even now. In the work of lesser bands, it might sound self-involved, too precious for this moment. Not so with The National. On Sleep Well Beast, the band continues to map out, then walk carefully into the beautiful wilds of the human heart. If we can’t wrestle with and know ourselves, how will we ever honestly deal with someone else?

Berninger and his bandmates offer up lullabies to soothe the savage within, soaking the heart in wine and softening it to exist in a world bigger than itself.

Grizzly Bear Detail New LP 'Painted Ruins,' Release "Mourning Sound" Single, Tour Dates

Music News, New MusicWeston PaganoComment

"I made a mistake / I should have never tried," opens Ed Droste on Grizzly Bear's "Mourning Sound." Accompanied by the announcement of an extensive tour and their fifth full-length album, Painted Ruins, for which this new track is the second single after "Three Rings," that lamentation is oddly juxtaposed with long-awaited excitement.

"Mourning Sound" is a rollicking exploration of each member's contribution to the whole; Christopher Bear and Chris Taylor's drum and bass steadily guide Droste's croons before Daniel Rossen brings it home with the chorus and some trumpeted electric guitar, all over a steady buzz of synth for a very on-brand level of cohesive complexity.

Their major label debut, Grizzly Bear's Painted Ruins is due out August 18 via RCA Records. Their forthcoming tour kicks off this October, for what will be the band's first shows since performing in support of Bernie Sanders last year. The lack of a Chicago date suggests a future festival appearance.

"Mourning Sound," the album art, tracklist, and tour dates are all below. Enjoy it all while you can, because if the new press photo is any indication, poor Dan seems to be fading off into space at an alarming rate. Either that or the printer started running out of ink.

Painted Ruins

  1. Wasted Acres
  2. Mourning Sound
  3. Four Cypresses
  4. Three Rings
  5. Losing All Sense
  6. Aquarian
  7. Cut-Out
  8. Glass Hillside
  9. Neighbors
  10. Systole
  11. Sky Took Hold

'Brooklyn' Is a Subtly Sweet Oscar Contender

TV/Film ReviewSean McHughComment

Oscar season is upon us, and so comes the more unique (Anamolisa), unnerving (The Revenant), and unapologetic (The Danish Girl) film releases from studios both large and small, all in hopes of gaining more fiscal and critical glory within Hollywood.

One of the earliest released, small(er) budget Oscar contenders, Brooklyn, is really none of the aforementioned descriptors; if anything it is unassuming – a film that offers no real cultural dissonance, dialogue, or distress – and therein lies the film’s true beauty. It is soft, sweet, thoughtful and tender.   

Brooklyn (adapted from the 2009 Colm Tóibín novel) is a period piece chronicling a young Irish girl, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), and her journey emigrating from Ireland to the United States, and assimilating into American society in the early 1950s.

At its core, Brookyln is a coming of age story, in which Eilis is faced with a variety of obstacles, modest in nature, but altogether riveting with their realism. The subtle reality of Ronan’s performance offers much more depth than the average coming of age story:

We witness Eilis learning (the hard way) how to operate on an trans-Atlantic voyage – through a particularly graphic bout of food poisoning mixed with sea sickness, in what will surely be one of the more graphic Oscar-worthy performances in years past.  

Ronan deftly presents courting in 1952 Brooklyn with the same subtle anxiety and palpable emotion not uncommon in today’s dating scene - at a dance put on by the local church, Eilis eventually meets her husband to be, Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen). Tony, an Italian boy, shows much more interest than Eilis, but chips away at her hardened exterior in hopes of one day winning her heart. They meet every night to walk home from Eilis’ night classes at Brooklyn College, where she studies to become a bookkeeper. Their exchanges become more intimate and earnest, talking about raising their kids to be Brooklyn Dodger fans, as Tony helps Eilis find a sense of belonging in America.

Just when it seems that Eilis has finally carved herself a place in Brooklyn, and life was beginning to look up, there is wretched moment in the film’s third act. Eilis, still working at Bartocci’s Department Store, is informed by Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) and Miss Fortini (Jessica Pare) that her biggest supporter and beloved older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), who gave up the chance of a life of her own in order for Eilis to chart a path to America, has died.

Eilis’ sister’s death catalyzes the film’s ultimate dilemma. Being called back to Ireland to put her sister to rest, familiar faces come back with great reverence and regard for the Americanized Eilis, including one Mr. Jim Farrell (continuing an already impressive year for Domhnall Gleeson). For the rest of the film, Eilis is tasked with choosing which life suits her best, framed by delicate moments of painstaking decisions between the familiarity of home or her responsibility for her life lead in America.

More understated in tone than its source material, screenwriter Nick Hornsby and director John Crowley masterfully transport an already charming story to screen in a hyperrealistic manner. Dramatically speaking, the conflict in the film moves at a glacial pace, but therein lies one of the greatest aspects of Brooklyn – the film reflects the subtlety of charting one’s own course in life. An film that is sure to be a career defining moment for Saoirse Ronan, as well as an Academy Awards 2016 darkhorse – Brooklyn reminds us that there is no debt to one’s past, and the greatest moments in life are not owed to others, but rather, shared.