Aural Impressions: The National, Sleep Well Beast

At long last, the wait is over.  Ever since 2013, not long after the release of Trouble Will Find Me, I’ve been longing for a new album from The National.

Okay, that’s not quite true.  While, I didn’t really know about The National until 2012 (thank you, Game of Thrones!), I didn’t even listen to Trouble Will Find Me until my Cascadia adventure in 2013, and even then, I only listened to it once.  In retrospect, I don’t get it.  Today, The National is one of my absolute favorite bands, and they really really took their time weaving their way into my life.  It took me another four months after that to listen to Boxer, and still six more before I even sniffed their remaining albums.  Once they took root, though, they’ve held on tightly.  The National was my most listened to band of 2014.  They’ve slipped (pun not intended) a bit as time went on, though I did finally end up seeing the band live for the first time last year.  They were awesome — everything else around the concert sucked, but that’s neither here nor there.  They played six new songs, five of which are on the new release, Sleep Well Beast.  It would be yet another year and change before these songs finally came out of the studio, and I must say, Sleep Well Beast was worth the wait.  For a seventh studio album, it’s unbelievably good.  There are few bands who generate outstanding music so consistently and The National is up in rarefied air.  Without further ado, my impressions of this gorgeous new record:

  1. Nobody Else Will Be There:  A solemn opening track, this one sets the table for the album to come.  Already the sonic space is filled with new textures and shapes, electronic clicks and hums.  It’s suddenly broken by a heavy piano and the characteristic, heartfelt vocals of Matt Berninger.  Yep, it’s The National.  This song is reserved, melancholic, and slow — it reminds me of a winter night.  It takes major turns in the chorus and bridge, adding a bit of light to an otherwise grim, lonely sound.  If this is a sign of what’s to come, Sleep Well Beast is going to be an emotional ride.
  2. Day I Die:  Wham!  Quiet synth gives way to a raucous drum and twitchy, crashing guitar.  Here’s the explosive energy that occasionally dotted the band’s last few spectacular albums.  The instrumentation isn’t exceptionally complex, but the drumming is absurdly good.  It’s easily the lead sound of the song as well as its main driving force.  Oh hey, a reference to “Val Jester!”  Neat.  I’m also loving the use of piano throughout this album from what I’ve heard (singles & live tracks), which is always welcome.  As a whole, I think “Day I Die” is pretty good, if a bit repetitive.  I’m sure it will grow on me more.
  3. Walk It Back:  Of the new songs I’d heard live a year ago, this was the one that struck me the most immediately.  Lead by a choppy synth, piano chords, and a floaty guitar, I think it’s mainly the chord progression and lyrics that grabbed me.  Matt’s vocals are almost atonal in the beginning of the verses, staying in his trademark low baritone throughout.  It’s spacey and subdued, much like the opening track. “Walk It Back” doesn’t particularly build up very much, bringing in only slightly more intricate drums and guitar during the bridge.  There is a spoken monologue during this point, which is a curious choice; I’d almost rather listen to the backing instrumentation alone here, which is a low keyboard intertwined with guitar and steady bass.  The long outro feels almost like a new song, but it maintains the restraint of the first half.  It doesn’t sound like I remember, but that’s probably just my fault.  The National to me has always been about growing into their songs — why should this album be different?
  4. The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness:  The first single released to the world from Beast, “System” revealed a few new things about The National’s latest sound: the first thing we hear is a heavily processed set of female vocals, then another sharply crashing guitar, along with piano.  The bass is crispy.  Synths are ubiquitous.  It reminds me a little of EL VY for some reason.  When Matt’s vocals start to soar, the song really takes off in pursuit.  A crunchy guitar solo enters; a sound we hadn’t really heard before on National records, yet it doesn’t really seem out of place either.  So far the energy has been off and on for this record, and I have a feeling that’s going to continue.
  5. Born to Beg:  And we’re back to the downbeat, featuring another piano with blocky chords, soft vocals, and percussive bloops for structure.  The progression reminds me a little of “England,” while the vocal harmonies of the chorus add a broad, ethereal feel.  It’s kind of amazing how consistent this band is; this song, additional electronics aside, could fit at home on either High Violet or Trouble Will Find Me quite well.  It’s chill, and again somewhat mournful.  Not the most memorable song, but I like it.
  6. Turtleneck:  Immediately this song is a blast, with multi-layered guitars, upfront bass, and a chaotic drumbeat.  The low low vocals combined with machine-gun strumming are a treat.  There’s been an unleashing here; the guitars are out of control, the vocals are rough and agitated, and the production is unpolished, presumably intentionally.  It’s got a live feel, as well as a retro studio feel.   Another guitar solo comes in, this one reminiscent of psychedelic-era Beatles, and before you know it, it’s over.  I can’t tell if this song is amazing or completely out of place, or both.  It doesn’t match the aural aesthetic of the album at all; it’s almost like an angry sequel to “Mr. November” — from The National, it doesn’t get much heavier than this.
  7. Empire Line:  This was my least favorite song among those played at the concert last year.  I was wrong.  Very wrong.  Amidst deep echoing percussion arises a High Violet-sounding reverberating guitar.  A slow plodder, the vocals are the focal point here.  The chorus breaks the low-key noise of the verse with a distant piano. Live the piano is much more upfront and distracting; here it’s deployed much better.  Physical drums slowly grow to push the song ahead, while the sonic landscape widens with guitars, strings, and various effects.  Toward the end, it feels almost as if the instruments are being swallowed as deep bass growls, yet the vocals remain clear.  The production on this track is phenomenal.  It sounds great in the studio.
  8. I’ll Still Destroy You:  Sampled vocal synths and a lively set of clicks and hits kick us off here.  Hang on, we’ve got a marimba!  And an accordion-like pad.  Oh, I like the progression on this one.  The piano is in the background but adds a ton of momentum.  As the chorus hits, the instruments diversify to an amazing degree.  I’m not even sure what’s all here.  A mandolin?  The marimba returns.  The drums are tight and swift.  Suddenly, it’s wide open again, with only pads, subtle electronics, and whatever that mandolin-sounding instrument is, fluttering above.  The texture here is wonderful.  It almost feels like a closing track with its crescendo, brightness, and optimism.  Of course, the lyrics say otherwise, but this is The National, after all.  It closes with a maelstrom of swirling strings, insane drums, and uniform bass.  Wow.  Definitely a standout on an already solid album.
  9. Guilty Party:  Beginning with another assortment of electronic percussion and a glitchy effect track, this one quickly breaks into another mournful piano progression, one very similar to “Day I Die,” in fact.  There’s a soft, reverb-heavy vocal.  A guitar quietly wails in the background.  The bass rides high and clean.  Bryan comes in with a quick, stuttering acoustic, providing an energetic contrast to the slow, deliberate piano.  A couple of arpeggiating, poly-rhythmic guitars come in during the bridge, again very reminiscent of Radiohead amidst an otherwise very National-sounding scape.  The verse and chorus repeat several times, each subtly building upon the predecessors as they’re joined by various other instruments including a staccato brass, strings, and additional electronic effects.  It’s a long, repetitive song, yet somehow it doesn’t feel tiresome or boring.  In fact, it might just be my favorite off the album, but it’s among tough competition, especially the next track…
  10. Carin at the Liquor Store:  A slow, piano based track, filled with heavy, syncopated chords in a simple 3/4 rhythm, it’s somewhat reminiscent of “Pink Rabbits,” if optimistic.  Of the singles, this was the first one that grabbed me immediately, so much so that upon first listen I sat myself at the piano and learned it one chord at a time by ear.  The chorus adds some weighty bass and a simple, effective drum, while a distorted guitar fills up space during a brief, straightforward solo.  Like several others on the album, it’s slightly repetitive, however it ends way sooner than it feels like it should.  Beautifully simple, I adore this song and I want more of it.
  11. Dark Side of the Gym:  Driven by an electric piano and a 6/8 shuffling beat, this one has the unmistakable feel of a high-school slow dance from a time before I was born.  It’s also somewhat reminiscent of old-school National — I’m talking Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers style.  It’s upbeat with a tinge of sadness, a ton of warmth, and a rather fitting upward key change halfway through.  The chorus here uses a i-III-VII-IV chord progression, which, although common, is still one of my favorites.  Overall, this song isn’t my favorite, but there is definitely something magical about it.
  12. Sleep Well Beast:  Sped-up synths from “I’ll Still Destroy You” plus the electronic drums from “Guilty Party” kick us off on the closing track.  The piano staggers not unlike “Hard to Find,” the previous album’s closer. Atmospheric guitars screech quietly.  Matt mumbles, as if he just sang the whole album just now.  There are Reznor-like electronic flourishes and Radiohead-like heavy bloops.  Structure is somewhat lacking, made clearer only by Bryan’s tom-heavy percussion. It’s almost a noise-collage, with the vocals falling ever deeper into the background, making reference to previous songs as the music had already done.  Does that make this a concept album?  It’s a pretty bookend, making a neat thematic circle with “Nobody Else Will Be There.”  It’s so dense, though, I’m going to need to listen to this many many many more times in order to really get a feel for it.

And that’s kind of the story of the album.  Like every other release by The National, I listened to it once or twice, noted the standout songs, forgot the rest, and slept on it for too long (presumably).  Sleep Well Beast is absolutely beautiful, incredibly well produced, and moving.  It follows nicely in the footsteps of BoxerHigh Violet, and Trouble Will Find Me, finishing a remarkable decade of high quality music that makes its artistic departures slowly and deliberately.  Because of the aforementioned nature of The National, I don’t feel at all ready to rate this album among its predecessors; I like it better than High Violet at first listen, but that doesn’t mean much because High Violet is easily my least-listened to album among those three.  That one is still growing on me too.  Overall, the melancholic theme is consistent, the alternating between chill and energy is enough to keep attention, and the music, instrumentation, and melodies are gripping, though not immediately memorable.  That is to say, they’re in there, they just need to grow.  I’m sure they will; I’ll likely have this album on repeat for the rest of the year, especially in the winter.  Going to see The National again next month will certainly force me to take a few long listens of their music.  I can’t wait.

Advertisements

Aural Impressions: Our Lady Peace, Somethingness

A few years ago, I wrote a very long, comprehensive post about Our Lady Peace.  They are one of my favorite bands, yet their discography is so wildly varying in style and quality that I thought to tackle it all at once.  In the summer of 2014, they put out a (stinker of a) new song and I assumed a new album was on the horizon.  In 2015, they posted an Instagram photo of Arnold Lanni behind the mixing board; a promising sign, teasing a new album produced by the man who’d help craft their peak sound.  Well, after a long wait, the longest between studio albums for Our Lady Peace, they’ve finally released another.  Sort of.  Somethingness is being released in a series of two EPs, which will later be combined into a single record.  The first volume, put out yesterday, consists of four tracks and clocks in at just fourteen-and-a-half minutes.  That’s not very substantial, but at least we know there’s more on the way.  Now, is this half-record any good?  I’m holding my breath and crossing my fingers…

  1. Drop Me In The Water:  Crunchy picking guitar in a curious progression.  Raine Madia’s strained vocals sound typical of his later style, which I guess it what happens when you get older.  The drums, by new drummer Jason Pierce, don’t sound terribly boring or straightforward, which is good, although he can never replace Jeremy Taggart.  Musically, it goes to places that remind me of Curve more than any previous record, although certain parts bring to mind more of Naveed/Clumsy than anything, especially that series of chords that ends the chorus.  Speaking of the chorus, it’s loud and radio-friendly, a sound I don’t much care for and that’s been overused in their catalog on the last few records.  This leads us to a quiet, reverberating guitar and low vocals fill out the bridge.  Now this is something I like.  The chiming sound that fades into the dark needs a minute to linger, but instead it’s cut off by a sharp guitar solo and a return to the relatively straightforward chorus.  There are signs of brilliance here, but they’re too few among the mainstream-ness.  Don’t get me wrong, this song does rock, especially the powerful, bassy, instrumental outro, it’s just a step or two removed from what I want out of Our Lady Peace.
  2. Hiding Place For Hearts:  A brightly strummed acoustic guitar is interrupted by the crashes of thick piano chords.  Unexpected!  The minor-key progression, with the lower vocals, and subtly wandering bass, reminds me a lot of Spiritual Machines‘ softer songs.  Sudden arpeggios signal into the chorus, which features a somewhat restrained Maida-vocal suddenly let out a series of incredibly classic-sounding falsettos.  I love that sound.  A quick break leads into another verse, this one musically denser yet vocally lighter, with more blasts of falsetto over new layers of bass and production effects.  A second chorus builds and builds as the piano continues to swirl with strings.  I’m thinking this is the best song Our Lady Peace has released since 2000.  This is the kind of direction they should have gone during the Gravity-era — it all feels like a logical successor to the mood and tone of Spiritual Machines.  What a missed opportunity the last fifteen years were, but at least they’re where they need to be with this song.  Better late than never.
  3. Falling Into Place:  More acoustic guitars, accompanied by drum hits on the rim.  The vocals are solid, but for some reason they split into a weird stereo effect halfway through the verse.  Quarters on the kick and an electric guitar come through the second repetition, injecting some energy and focus.  Another heavy, suddenly explosing chorus features chaotic production and a falsetto backing vocal that almost sounds like Chantal Kreviazuk.  There are stops and starts, however it moves forward into another well-engineered sound with crisply fuzzy bass,  a descending, stepped-chord sequence, and cleanly arpeggiated guitars.  Also a brief dulcimer.  The bridge is rather dull, and the chorus doesn’t really do much for me.  I can’t get over that second verse though — if only the whole song sounded like that.  Again, baby steps.  This stuff is way better than just about all of the music they’ve released in over a decade.
  4. Nice To Meet You:  Now this is different.  And, well, I know I said “Hiding Place for the Hearts” is the best song they put since before Gravity, but I think I might be wrong.  This one is fantastic.  I get old-school vibes mixed with the best of the new-school sound.  The guitar is a patchwork of strummed and picked chords, which aligns with Mike Turner’s techniques around Clumsy.  The verse features electronic production elements that, while not really Our Lady Peace’s sound, fit in flawlessly.  The chord progression is delightfully unique, the bass work is solid, the vocals are clean, front-and-center, and not only do they employ a good amount of falsetto, but they’re far tighter than the “loose” sound of Maida’s current style.  Hell, I even dig the drums.  It’s catchy, doesn’t have a lot of filler moments, and ends just when it should.  Why this wasn’t the debut single for the album, I cannot understand.  I love this song.

For an album in which I was dreading the worst, I am not only pleasantly surprised, I am finding myself wanting more.  If Our Lady Peace can keep this up through the remainder of the album yet to be released, I will be a happy camper.  These four songs, albeit a small sample size, are a definite improvement over Curve, light-years better than Burn Burn, and more interesting and varied than Healthy In Paranoid Times and Gravity.  While there are some parts I don’t care much for, it’s a step in the right direction, finally.  What strikes me most about this, though, is the production and engineering.  It’s crisper, tighter, and balanced.  Each instrument fits in how it should, not drowning each other out.  It’s been a long time since I felt that an Our Lady Peace release was right, and this one, for the most part does.  I am definitely looking forward to Volume 2.

The Piano Bug

I recently had a revelation, wherein I didn’t completely suck at the piano.

I’ve been playing keys in some form or another for over twenty years.  I had taken formal lessons for a few years toward the end of elementary school, but fell out of interest in the music I was given.  I played on and off in high school, lending my abilities to a smattering of events and jams.  After I graduated in 2007, I bought an electric piano for college, where the on and off playing continued, mostly due to the fact that I had to store my keyboard underneath my bed due to space constraints in the freshman dorm.

When I moved up the hill to my fraternity house in 2008, I set up my keyboard next to my desk so I’d had easy access to music at any time, and as a result my creative juices flowed like never before.  As school progressed, music took a backseat to my studies and other various activities, and once my senior year rolled around, I had once again stashed my keyboard under my bed.  My senior year apartment was (relatively) nice, but my cozy room had, again, no space for a piano setup.

Since I’ve lived in California, I’ve always had my piano out in full view.  In my first few apartments, I’d even set it up desk-adjacent, like the good old days.  My playing was relatively regular.  A few years ago, I started MIDI tracking some of my favorite songs as a gift to my mother.  It became an annual Christmas present… for two years; in 2015, after recording a shorter batch of pieces later in the year, I stalled indefinitely.  I’d moved to San Francisco and, thanks to the topology of my studio apartment, my piano was no longer within arms reach of my computer desk.  It’s ten feet away, directly behind it, which is a nearly intolerable distance when in the process of laying down MIDI tracks.  I’m only half kidding — the lack of immediacy did definitely kill some of my interest in the piano for a time.

That brings me to now, and the reason I’m writing this.  Suddenly, this summer, I’ve been bitten by some kind of piano bug and its effect has yet to wear off after several weeks.  It might have been seeing Hamilton that made me dive into the Hamilton sheet music book I’ve got here.  When you really get it going, the piano arrangements are extremely fun to play:

On the other hand, another catalyst for my new found addiction might be the time that I stumbled upon a new piano artist whose songs I found not only immediately gripping in their musicality, but seemingly simple enough that I could play them with little effort.

For example:

This is suddenly one of my favorite pieces of music ever.  It’s beautiful, the chords taken some unexpected and frisson-filled turns, and it’s not too complicated for my hands.  I bought the sheet music for this album from Germany on a whim not long ago, and I find it’s not that hard to play.  Granted, I’ve been playing it (and many others) over and over and over these past few weeks, and wouldn’t you know it, I’ve gotten better.  Funny that.  I am still working on that quick-chord part in the second half, though.

Between 2011 and now, most of my piano playing has been improvised, relying only on chord charts and my ears.  While fun, this doesn’t do much to help technique and skill.  It wasn’t really until this summer that I really cracked open my sheet music books and sat down to learn songs, slowly and painstakingly without shortcut.  I’ll tell you what, my hands got sore just from stretching and bending to previously unimaginable positions.  The fun part is, eventually some of these more difficult songs actually become possible for someone of my limited talent to play.  It’s a great feeling to finally nail a tricky bar or two, and an even better one to get through an entire song without a mistake or hesitation.  I don’t have a lot of those songs in my repertoire, but that number is slowly going up.

Additionally, I’d had another sudden revelation just this past week.  For years, I’d struggled with digitizing my playing due to the latency between the physical touch of the keys and the output of the MIDI-fied sound.  When you press a key and it’s a full half-second before the note is returned to the ears, it tends to make keeping tempo difficult.  However, for whatever reason, I stumbled across an, in retrospect obvious, fix that I would then quickly implement this past weekend.  I installed a new secondary sound driver designed specifically for low-latency musical input.  It worked (nearly) flawlessly right away, allowing me to play digitized tracks full of effects, backing tracks, without delay nor distraction.  I’m somewhat ashamed this idea never occurred to me in the last ten years, but it’s better discovered late than never at all.

The end result is that, beyond my rediscovery of the instrument, I’ve only managed to further strengthen my desire to play.  I’m even taking my newfound confidence to social media.  There’s nothing more motivating than putting my performances out into the public, where I’m not allowed to screw up lest I face the wrath of my fans.  Or, less dramatically and more realistically, I’m putting all of the pressure on myself to be perfect.  It works. (Especially when all you need is a flawless minute before you’re allowed to make a mistake again…)

Can't forget my favourite part to play! Only made a mistake or two. 🎹🎹🎹 #piano #thesims #jamming

A post shared by Jake Buckley (@jacobdbuckley) on

All of this is to say, I’ve fallen in love once again with the piano.  I can’t believe I let it sit idly for so long; I’m glad its back in my life.

Perhaps you could expect some new music out of me?  It’s been… a while.