The National: A Snoring Success

Matt Berninger led the subdued performance at 9:30.
Matt Berninger led the subdued performance at 9:30. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2007

"Boxer," the new album from critical darlings the National, is a superlative, subdued song cycle -- a textured collection of forlorn chamber-pop that seems particularly well suited for late-night listening in a darkened room after several glasses of syrah. It's the perfect moping-around music for bookish indie-rock fans who always wondered what the love child of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits might sound like, circa 2007.

But the National's melancholy music doesn't necessarily translate well to the concert stage, as the songs tend to sort of . . . sit there. At least they tended to do so Wednesday at the band's sold-out show at the 9:30 club.

Hear all those languorous lamentations, trapped under so much inertia!

Behold the six charisma-challenged musicians shuffling around the stage as though they're at a sound check!

See me suppressing yawns in the club's balcony!

Oh, the torpor!

Just consider the encore: After slogging through an hour-long set that ended with one of the more explosive songs of the night -- the frenetic "Mr. November," from "Boxer's" acclaimed predecessor, "Alligator" -- the National returned to the stage and unplugged the momentum machine by performing the stark, plodding "Green Gloves" from "Boxer." Such a fine line between killer mood music and mood-killing music, no?

At the center of the Brooklyn-based band's moody blues is Matt Berninger, the lanky frontman who writes like Waits and sings like Cohen and applies a weary baritone to his brooding words.

When he's not busy braying -- as he did during "Mr. November" and another "Alligator" song, "Abel" -- Berninger's rich voice is a thing of beauty: low, heavy and heart-sore. It stood out during the set's quiet moments, of which there were many, including the finely rendered opener, "Start a War."

"We expected something / Something better than before / We expected something more," Berninger intoned over chiming guitar chords supplied by sibling guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner. (There are brothers in the rhythm section, too: Scott Devendorf on bass and Bryan Devendorf on drums. Padma Newsome joined the group as multi-instrumentalist, playing piano, keyboards and a violin.)

The music on "Start a War" eventually swelled until it was overwhelmed by a blast of beautiful, discordant noise, thus setting a pattern: No matter how soft or slow they began, almost all of the 17 songs played by the National built to a somewhat formulaic squalor, with the band playing louder and faster until pealing guitars crashed into the drums, keyboards and violin.

Clearly, the gambit was intended to turn the songs into rousing indie-rock anthems, a la Arcade Fire, for whom the National opened on tour earlier this year. But the structural sameness actually had the opposite effect, dragging the set downward -- as though somebody spiked the show with Percoset.

Not every song underwhelmed, of course. That was particularly true of the ones from "Alligator." "Secret Meeting," for instance, sparkled with its barroom piano lines and polyrhythmic guitar riffs. And on the surging "Lit Up," the band let its arena-rock flag fly, showing off a big, anthemic sound and unveiling something resembling a pop hook.

But playing a set loaded with songs from "Boxer," the National suffered through far too many flat-lined moments. How perfect, then, that midway through the concert Berninger requested that the blue-hued stage lights be turned down some. Wouldn't want to ruin a perfectly soporific set or anything.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company