A Skin, A Night / The Virginia EP
A Skin, A Night - A Film By Vincent Moon
Personally I can take or leave films about bands and the trying times they experience while putting together a record, but Vincent Moon's portrayal of The National and the long and laborious creation of their biggest selling album Boxer is compelling viewing for the most part. It has the regular lingering shots of a troubled front man in the creative process while the rest of the band sit around in the recording studio waiting for his opinion but the stuff in between is beautiful. I have always seen The National's music as cinematic and Boxer solidified this with its darkly meandering melodies and cryptic verse, so for Moon to marry this up with long shots of a city asleep or lonely subway trains creeping through hauntingly desolate stations really brings to life the missing visual half to this bands music. Each shot is filtered through a heavy grainy film and is shrouded in stark contrasting black and white.
The dialogue is interesting as we discover this band's long recording history and the insecurities that come with it. 2005's Alligator was the first real break through for this band but it merely served to identify them with their fan base and it wasn't until last years stunning Boxer that things really started to change and they became aware of their growing presence in the music scene. The mood of the lighting is mirrored by much of the dialogue provided mainly by Berninger who comes across as the shy and introverted personality we see biting his fingernails on stage. He talks of his need to drink red wine before going on stage in order to shut out the fact that he's standing in front of a throbbing crowd. The success of Boxer doesn't seem to be making things any easier for this reserved leader. The demo versions of some of the songs are interesting especially when seen from the drummers point of view. Bryan Devendorf is one of the rising stars of Boxer as his rhythm dexterity provides much of the power and pace of the record.
The film as a whole doesn't provide us with much we didn't already imagine about The National but Moon's moody cinematic portrayal of the music is stunning and gives these songs the quiet weight they deserve.
The Virginia EP
Where the film may have lacked any new insights into The National's music, this 12 track EP makes up for it. It's basically a demo/live record which ordinarily wouldn't light me up as they tend to be lesser versions of your favorite tracks cynically pumped out to die-hard fans for a quick buck. But this EP is actually quite generous. Although some of the best tracks here were featured on the Extras tour EP the whole package serves as a worthy accompaniment to the Mothership of Boxer.
There aren't many bands these days that offer B-Sides worth bothering with but the first 3 songs here are equal to many of the lucky ones that made the Boxer final cut. All originating from Alligator's various releases, You've Done It Again Virginia is from Lit Up and Santa Clara and Blank Slate are both B-Sides to the Mistaken For Strangers single and it's Blank Slate that really shines. It's a reworking of an earlier B-Side Keep It Upstairs from the Abel single but this time it's been lifted out of it's original hollow surroundings and is given a glorious rock makeover and the result is one of the best National songs to date. Boxer has really elevated their sound with added strings and drumming of epic proportion so it's so special to hear some of these demo versions that show the band in their stripped down clarity. Forever After Days simply has Berninger's lonely vocals matched with a gentle guitar and lo-fi organ while Rest Of Years is a hollow slow burner that rises to a dirty finale of electric guitar and calamitous drums. But it's the Slow Show demo that gets the prize here as it did on the Extras EP. It's one of the finest songs on Boxer and here in it's bare bones it really shines. Berninger's vocals are mumbled to the point of near indecipherability and so are rendered down to just another instrument in this rich musical tapestry.
One of the best things about this EP is hearing a retrospective of this band's back catalogue all mixed up in various formats. This is seen most notably in how Slow Show is followed by the Daytrotter Session version of Lucky You, a gem off the 2003 album Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers. This is a heart wrenching, marvelously underplayed song that stands it's ground when put up against the latest work. This is then followed by a fantastic live rendition of Springsteen's Mansion On The Hill. The Boss' melancholic tone suits Berninger's style perfectly here and it's a triumph.
The album is brought to a close by two live versions of Fake Empire and About Today and unfortunately this is where the band slip up. These are two of the strongest songs on Boxer, but my criticism of their recorded versions still stands alongside the faults of their recent live show in London. With Berninger's delicate delivery and the ever richer musical waters he swims in The National's strength has alway seeped out of their restraint. On these recent live tracks the band take the songs off into all too grand territory with bloated guitar solo finale's that undermine the subtle depths previously plumbed and force the band into a genre they don't seem to belong in. It didn't work live and it doesn't work here. Still, it isn't enough to bring this generous EP down and it gives a glimpse of the talent that lies semi dormant in this group of musicians. Their albums are growing into something quite unique and their B-Sides show a cupboard full of unused masterpieces that few bands could afford to leave out.
21st May 2008 - Tumblr3.5
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