BIG EARS 2010: The National

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Photo by Kieth Klenowski

On the surface, the elegant indie rock of Brooklyn’s the National seems like one of Big Ears’ most counterintuitive bookings: Over the course of their acclaimed albums Alligator and Boxer, the five-piece filed mid-’00s New York post-punk down to a fine point that combines melancholy sincerity (Matt Berninger’s baritone suggests a sad, sleepy Bruce Springsteen) with a rarely subsiding rhythmic drive. The result is a distinctive blend of emotive beauty and undeniable rock power—neither, it would seem, an easy fit for a festival that has gone out of its way to define itself by experimentation. In another sense, though, the band is worth looking at through an art-rock lens, and not just because guitarist Bryce Dessner is co-curator of Big Ears 2010. Though the National’s formal composure tends to overwhelm their compositions, there are distinct hints throughout their catalog of influences that run much deeper. Take the dissonant guitar figure that lays the foundation for Boxer highlight “Mistaken for Strangers,” or the drone that becomes the basis for “Terrible Love,” a track from May’s long-awaited High Violet. (The National’s Big Ears finale show at the Tennessee Theatre will be the large-scale debut of much of High Violet, after a few warm-up shows at Brooklyn’s tiny Bell House.) And don’t forget Bryan Devendorf’s signature drumming, which the rest of the band never fails to integrate, no matter how complicated he makes it for them. That the National make it so easy to overlook the depth and challenges of their music may be reason enough to welcome them to Big Ears.

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