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High Violet

Updated on June 8, 2010

The National keeps getting better.

The band The National has been around longer than people realize.  Their latest, High Violet, is their fifth—and arguably their best—album. For a decade they've been snaking their way into the mainstream, record by record, tour by tour, getting taken more seriously every step of the way.

"Someone send a runner through the weather that I'm under for the feeling that I lost today."

Any review you read about these guys will definitely talk about the seductive quality of Matt Berninger's baritone. And rightly so. He has mastered a slow-motion delivery, pausing between words, letting the notes resound, while the anticipation works you into delicate madness. Like a lover who hovers an inch away from your lips. A rock singer finding strength in gentleness.

"All our lonely kicks are getting harder to find. We'll play nuns versus priests until somebody cries."

As well written and sung as Berninger's words are, their power is rooted in the rich sophistication of the band's instrumentation. Patient, quivering guitar tones warm you up slowly. Bass swells and sprinklings of piano take your guard down piece by piece, to the point where a single trumpet blast can run chills up your spine.

At times it seems like the drums are trying fiercely to keep a heartbeat going inside the Earth. Next thing you know, you're hanging onto a string arrangement as if it's the only thing that can hold you together. Stranded outside with this music pouring down on you, you might be tricked into thinking that rain is a blessing.

"It takes an ocean not to break."

This band has aged like a fine wine. Like a student who continues studying after graduation. I once read an article saying that the Cowboy Junkies should have stopped after their first album, which was recorded in a church with a single microphone in the middle of the room. The writer thought that the magic captured in that open space—that rare and purified culmination of forces—could never be duplicated or improved upon. They would never get it back. The National, on the other hand, has found new corners of the studio every time they've gone back to it, and they bring their integrity to the stage as well. If they ever burn out, I suspect their final note will linger like the last flickers of a candle, reminding you of the church they erected even after the lights have gone out.

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