The National

The National's Official Website!

By Patrick Gosnell

WHEN: 1999-present

CULPRITS: Matt Berninger (vocals), Aaron Dessner (guitar, bass, piano), Bryce Dessner (guitar), Scott Devendorf (bass, guitar), Bryan Devendorf (drums) / Unofficial member: Padma Newsome (multi-instrumentalist)

ALBUMS: The National (2001); Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers (2003); Cherry Tree EP (2004); Alligator (2005); Boxer (2007); The Virginia EP (2008)

HOW: Let me first apologize for the unabashed adulation this post contains about The National, but what else would you expect from a post about my favorite band?  After a long exploratory session of Listeners-Also-Bought on iTunes, I ran across the song “All the Wine“.  One listen, and it was over — I was in love.  Matt Berninger’s esoteric baritone piqued my interest, and soon I was permanently hooked by the skillful chamber pop freak-outs delivered by the Dressner and Devendorf brothers.  Thankfully, I had the chance to see them play live three times during 2007, and again this year, at some of the best venues in Atlanta (The Tabernacle, Variety Playhouse and The Earl).  The first show I saw was one where they opened for The Arcade Fire at the Atlanta Civic Center (a transcendent night of music if there ever was one), and anyone who entered that show without knowing The National left with a strong sense that they had been missing out.

WHY: I have tried (and failed) on numerous occasions to describe both what The National sounds like and why I think they are the best band out there today, and all I can come up with so far is: everything about this band is right.  You really have to hear them to know them, and even then it’s best to listen to each of their songs multiple times.  That’s not to say that they are too complex, but rather, surprising.  Songs that would normally follow prevailing indie-rock trends are thickly layered with strings, horns, and unintelligible yelps from Berninger.  They have dropped the constrained alt-country influences of their debut, and have filled subsequent releases with driving, enigmatic, and, at times, haunting ruminations on isolation, sex, and the working man.  While it’s easy to attribute the uniqueness of their songs to Matt Berninger’s fifth-drink baritone and finely-crafted non-sequiturs, there is certainly something to be said for the exquisitely intimate performances that could only be created by two sets of brothers.  Few bands can claim such strong blood-ties, and it pays off with a musical style that is at once intensely rhythmic and darkly ethereal.

SONGS: It was certainly a challenge to narrow down The National’s extensive list of mesmerizing songs for an 80-minute CD, but after many tough decisions (and a few second guesses), I’ve arrived at a 22-track playlist that (hopefully) touches on all sides of the band.  “All the Wine” kicks it off — I figure, if it grabbed me it just might grab you.  Next is “90-Mile Water Wall“, which features the delightfully bitter lyric: “I’m looking for a trap-door trigger, to drop me out of your view”, and some of the most heart-breaking violin (played by Padma Newsome) ever to be recorded in an indie-rock song.  The first half of the mix is (perhaps overly) stuffed with songs from Alligator and Boxer, but let’s face it, they are two wonderfully crafted albums, perhaps some of the strongest of the decade, and I think the concentration is justifiable.  “Fake Empire” showcases Berninger’s lyrical commentary and “Slow Show” highlights Bryan Devendorf’s propensity for unique rhythmic structures.

The second half of the mix is more varied, consisting of tracks from the band’s EPs and their first two LPs.  “Son“, an odd but poetic number from their debut album, launches a trio of songs focused on the family unit, including “Slipping Husband” and “Trophy Wife“.  Things get a bit melancholic with the pairing of “Anna Freud” and “Forever After Days” before picking up again with the majestic “So Far Around the Bend” (from the much-publicized compilation Dark Was the Night, which was also produced by the Dessner brothers).  I believe “Wasp Nest” to be a perfect example of the dichotomies found in The National’s songs: a dreamy, lilting arrangement by the band paired with biting cynicism from Berninger.  The mix comes to a close with three fan favorites: “About Today” (the band at their most lovelorn), “Abel” (Berninger at his most manic), and “The Geese of Beverly Road” (a personal favorite for its sultry romanticism and cavernous sound).

WHAT’S MISSING: Other glorious songs that just could not fit on the CD, but which are definitely worth a listen include: “Available” (Alligator) for its ferocity;  “Mansion On the Hill” (The Virginia EP), their understated Springsteen cover;  “City Middle” (Alligator) for its drunken poetry;  “Cherry Tree” (Cherry Tree EP) for its slow build and raucous payoff;  and the last 1:30 of “Cardinal Song” (Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers) which, really, you could listen to and know everything you need to know about The National.  Brilliant!

Hear their entire set from Radio City Music Hall here!

New (extremely beautiful) Song: “The Runaway“!

LINK: Click on the list below to see the 80MFL iMix, where you can listen to samples, download what sounds good, or get the whole thing!

Click on the list for our The National iMix


“Slipping Husband” from Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers

“Forever After Days” from the Virginia EP

“So Far Around the Bend” – live from Radio City Music Hall

~ by Patrick Gosnell on September 10, 2009.

5 Responses to “The National”

  1. Excellent, excellent, excellent playlist! Is it weird that I was checking your site at 12 am last night with the hopes of reading what you had to say about The National before I went to sleep? Love this: “….there is certainly something to be said for the exquisitely intimate performances that could only be created by two sets of brothers. Few bands can claim such strong blood-ties, and it pays off with a musical style that is at once intensely rhythmic and darkly ethereal.”

    Every single person in that band is a contributing factor to what makes The National so amazing. Curtsies to you for a great write-up & an fantastic introductory mix.

    • Glad to hear I got the approval of at least one other super-fan! Thanks for the kind words, and I look forward to reading your post next week, Liz! (And just so you know, we post at 7:00AM now.) Cheers!

  2. Great job, the list is fantastic and your commentary is perfect! Glad you put Soho Riots in there. I’d have to say that’s my favorite.

  3. excellent list! all my fave National songs (except “Start A War”). lovelovelove Cherry Tree EP 🙂

  4. Very cool writeup/mix. The one song I love that didn’t make the cut is “Santa Clara”. Great job though, some real nice selections.

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