The National Shake Things Up on Sleep Well Beast

When you talk about a new album by The National, there’s a few concessions you make. You’re not really stressing sound and progression but you do detail the mood and intensity. They’re a band of Midwestern men, two sets of brothers, and a guy that has a brother (as the excellent 2014 documentary Mistaken For Strangers shows), that define themselves by both their creative and personal tensions. They progress in inches, not leaps. Well, that is until now. Sleep Well Beast feels somewhat like a sonic redefinition.

While each record from 2005’s Alligator felt like a deeper descent into an emotional and sonic black hole, there’s an electricity that runs through their latest that feels like a band reacting against their darker impulses. Opener “Nobody Else Will Be There” creeps up on you – Berninger sings like he’s telling a secret, backed by nocturnal percussion and string swells. It’s a beautiful, but odd opener, as the pulsating “Day I Die” kicks into gear. The balance feels off The band experiments with synths and guitar solos all over the place – including the ripshit “Turtleneck”. The National have not made a song that has let Berninger go this loose on record since “Abel”. The guitars are nervy and suspenseful. It’s going to sound awesome live.

The three song run of “Guilty Party,” “Carin at the Liquor Store,” and “Dark Side of the Gym” are some of the most gorgeously staggering songs that the band has put together about love and relationships. “Guilty Party” talks about a failing relationship, while “Carin at the Liquor Store” is a piano ballad that’s apparently about guitarist Aaron Dessner’s mother-in-law that passed away during recording. “Dark Side of the Gym” has ‘wedding song’ written all over it, Berninger, evokes Renaissance imagery as he sings in duet with Irish singer Lisa Hannigan: “I have dreams of anonymous castrati/Singing to us from the trees/I have dreams of a first man and a first lady/Singing to us from the sea“. It’s language ripe for a first dance.

Despite these high points – there are some moments that don’t feel right. The intro to “I’ll Still Destroy You” feels a little out of place, perhaps like an Amnesiac-era Radiohead outtake, as well as the first single “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, has a lot going on – keys, guitar stabs and some synth hits. It’s also got sickly-sweet guitar solo which is the best part of the song, mainly because they are rarely, if ever heard on National albums.

At its core, Sleep Well Beast is a very good album by The National. The band backed itself against the wall with 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, hewing a little too close to the sound they’d cultivated with their previous three albums. It’s the sound of a band taking chances with an established formula, spreading out and showing that after nearly twenty years together they can find ways to create something deeply engaging.
Is it the album to start a new fan with? No. Is it a worthy addition to their catalog? Certainly. They have consistently made records that try to top one another. Perhaps they have yet to create their best. If anything, Sleep Well Beast shows that all bets are off. Keep listening.

Sleep Well Beast is out now on 4AD.

Dreams, Reality, Gratitude and Joy

IMG_1768It feels like it was all one big dream. It had to have been. That, or it was the altitude.

It all felt kind of shaky, a little hazy, kind of surreal. Still kinetic though, vibrant and feeling purely impossible.

I remember the climb up to Red Rocks, legs shaking, exhausted, staring up at these monoliths that I’d only seen in pictures. I was barely able to process that I was going to see a band that I never thought I’d see in my lifetime, much less twice in a little over a year. For a few moments I stared out at the crowd from the stage, watching as they reached so high they eventually just faded out, framed by two beautiful rock formations. I won’t forget that ever.
I remember standing in the photo pit the next day, hearing keyboards that are so familiar in every moment of my everyday life, on my record player or my iPhone, but never in the same way they did for those first 35 shows. That on this particular Saturday, how they never felt like they were missing, how warm, how fucking brilliant it was, and how it brought me back in touch with that white hot energy that was so intoxicating ten years ago.

I saw Lifter Puller and The Hold Steady – complete with Franz Nicolay – in consecutive days in Denver. I never thought this could even be a thing that could have been dreamed up. But it was, and it happened.

I don’t know if there are words for this weekend, or at least ones I can’t formulate. There are feelings and impressions. It felt sweet and authentic, definitely heartwarming and all mostly exciting.

It’s amazing that in 2016, two combinations of eight people from very disparate places can come together to create music and create an experience for people to purely enjoy, just because they can. That Lifter Puller is the littlest punk rock engine that could, playing just six shows after their original dissolution in 2000 – to their largest crowd EVER sixteen years later is mindblowing. Then to think, a day later that The Hold Steady could play their landmark record with the keyboard player that is so much part of that signature sound – years after his departure left more question marks than answers is just an amazing thing to me.

I understand the frustration and the sadness that many felt for not being able to attend these shows or any of the ones coming up this fall. I read the messages every day. I’m doing my best to bring the experience to them, because I know I’d want to soak up every moment any way possible. I still think that’s beside the point though. I know it’s easy to say that because I was there, but I am constantly thinking about the following.

Nothing is forever. We’re always perpetually in a state of nostalgia, and I think people always have an especially hard time with that when it comes to music. “When will there be a new album? Will there be more shows? I wish they did this instead of that.” That I get, I’ve been one of those people. But for now, it’s great to purely enjoy it. So much joy is not a phrase. It actually means something. I’m grateful that my favorite bands on the planet are doing something. I’m not worried about what comes next. I honestly have not a single idea if there’s anything else after December. But I’m thrilled for now, and that’s enough. These bands, especially The Hold Steady, have given me more than I could ever give back.

I wish Jersey Mike, Liz Montgomery and Bible Salesman were here for it. I know they would have loved it. Jersey would have told us to enjoy this moment with a very impassioned post on the message boards, Liz would have said something so smart that I would still be trying to figure it out a month later, and Bible would have said something weird and off putting and tied it to some Bruce anecdote, but I would secretly be happy to see his yellow hat at the shows.

I’m so grateful to have experienced all of it. From the opening notes of “Stuck Between Stations” to stopping on a dime at end of “Stay Positive,” the other day, it just reminded me why I have spent so much of the past ten years of my life on this. It’s more about the experience and the people than it is about the music for me. For now, I know there’s a few more chances to do that, and a lifetime to connect with others who love the same thing that I do.

So much goddamn joy.

Ten Years Ago…This Week?

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Ten years ago last Sunday, February 14, 2006, I started this website. It’s fitting I’m writing this AFTER the anniversary, as nothing with this site ever gets done on time.

It’s been a lot of things over time. A hub for my friends to write whatever they want, an ill-conceived web magazine, the home of The Eternal Mixtape Project, and for the better part of the last half-decade, a place for me to put whatever I’m thinking…occasionally.

It’s the longest-lasting creative endeavor I’ve ever had (if you don’t count my two-decade association with Jordan), and I’m proud of the body of work that’s here, both of my own and so much of what anyone that ever contributed did. It mattered to me then, and it still does today.

“Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl” by Carrie Brownstein

To a millennial audience, Carrie Brownstein is likely more well known for her comedic partnership with Fred Armisen, and their show “Portlandia,” which has run for six season on IFC. But to anyone just a few years older, she’s probably better known as a third of legendary rock trio Sleater-Kinney. And with Sleater-Kinney back touring on 2015’s “No Cities to Love,” the band, and Brownstein, are in the spotlight now more than ever before.

Brownstein’s memoir, “Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl,” tackles much of her early life and the years she spent in Sleater-Kinney as guitarist and co-vocalist-songwriter. It’s a surprisingly breezy read that offers insight into a performer that, in the past, has revealed very little about her personal life. Here readers are afforded a glimpse into the motivation behind some of that group’s greatest works – seminal albums for any modern listener.

Brownstein is an engaging, thoughtful writer that allows you to quickly envelope yourself in her life. With Brownstein’s pen, you’re in the van, on stage and on the road – feeling those same frustrations and anxieties. One can only hope that a sequel detailing her next phase is in the works.

Master of None – Season 1

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With what seems like an endless stream of TV shows available on a variety of formats, watching something new can almost feel like a chore. Master of None is not one of those shows. It arrived recently on Netflix fully formed and ready for total consumption.

The story covers a struggling actor in New York named Dev, played by Aziz Ansari, and explores his life and that with his friends, family and girlfriend. The show covers a smorgasbord of topics including (but not limited to) sex, dating, race, gender and family.

It’s a perfect snapshot for someone approaching 30, trying to negotiate their place in the world during what feels like a constantly transitional age. Savor it – no – devour it and be glad that there’s something like this that exists in the world.

All episodes of Master of None are streaming on Netflix.

Favorite Songs of 2014 (and Other Stuff)

No particular order outside of “Grand Canyon” which is #1.

Favorite Songs of 2014

“Grand Canyon” – Drive-By Truckers
“Spinners” – The Hold Steady
“The Only Thing” – The Hold Steady
“i” – Kendrick Lamar
“Transgender Dysphoria Blues” – Against Me!
“Fuckmylife666” – Against Me!
“Black Me Out” – Against Me!
“Ain’t Got Nobody” – Weezer
“Go Away” – Weezer
“New York Kiss” – Spoon
“Do You” – Spoon
“Echo Boomer” – Fucked Up
“Glass Boys” – Fucked Up
“Red Eyes” – The War on Drugs
“Under The Pressure” – The War On Drugs
“An Ocean In Between The Waves” – The War on Drugs
“Waste Your Time” – Ex Hex
“Gimme Something Good” – Ryan Adams
“Change Your Mind” – Ryan Adams
“Low Key” – Tweedy
“A Little God In My Hands” – Swans
“She’s Not Me” – Jenny Lewis
“Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” – Run The Jewels
“Blockbuster Night Part 1” – Run The Jewels
“Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” – Run The Jewels
“Bury Our Friends” – Sleater-Kinney
“Afraid of Nothing” – Sharon Van Etten
“Our Love” – Sharon Van Etten
“It’s Time To Come Home” – The Rentals
“Seventeener (17th and 37th)” – The Lawrence Arms
“Beautiful Things” – The Lawrence Arms
“Maidenhead” – Protomartyr
“Trust Me Billy” – Protomartyr
“Break Free” – Ariana Grande & Zedd
“Problem” – Ariana Grande ft. Iggy Azalea
“Rattlesnake” – St. Vincent
“I Prefer Your Love” – St. Vincent
“Uptown Funk” – Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars
“Champions Of Red Wine” – The New Pornographers
“Ain’t That Easy” – D’Angelo
“Make You Better” – The Decemberists
“Can’t Do Without You” – Caribou
“Seasons (Waiting On You” – Future Islands
“Tell You (Today)” (Arthur Russell Cover) – Robyn
“Chandelier” – Sia
“I Wanna Get Better” – Bleachers
“Out of the Woods” – Taylor Swift
“Style” – Taylor Swift
“Shake It Off” – Taylor Swift
“I”m Not Part of Me” – Cloud Nothings
“Jealous (I Ain’t With It)” – Chromeo
“Two Weeks” – FKA twigs

Favorite Non-2014 Album Discovery

The Long Winters – When I Pretend To Fall

Honorable Mention Albums

D’Angelo and the Vanguard – Black Messiah (came as I was writing my list)
Swans – To Be Kind
The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
Spoon – They Want My Soul