Monday, October 15, 2007

The National Play Terminal 5 (NYC, 10/11/07)

Brooklyn-based The National played the inaugural concert at New York City's Terminal 5 last Thursday to a sold-out crowd of approximately 3,000 attendees. 

Frontman Matt Berninger put on a mesmerizing, if slightly conflicted performance. He spent most of the night with his eyes shut, clutching the mic close to his body as he sang to his adoring audience. But while Berninger typically seemed awkward and somewhat unaware of what to do with himself in between songs, he also displayed a more lighthearted side by joking with the audience before the concert began. Later on, right before the band's two-song encore, he poured a bottle of champagne — which he then passed along to the front row — onstage to celebrate the venue's opening.

The rest of Berninger's bandmates were also a delight. The music was spot-on, the Dessner brothers provided lush guitar and bass backdrops, and Padma Newsome — who accompanied the band on violin and keyboards — nearly stole the show at certain points. Highlights of the show included "Fake Empire" (the opener on this year’s Boxer), which resulted in a majestic climax featuring a trumpet and trombone player. By the end of the song's performance, the entire band seemed exhilarated as members grinned at each other onstage. Other songs, like "Secret Meeting," contained an extra energy that the album versions lack. And Berninger performed the second and final song of the encore, "Mr. November," with wild abandon, screaming and kicking at speakers as he darted around the stage. 

The National may not seem like the sort of band destined for superstardom; their slow rise in popularity is an indication that the band's music tends to grow on its listeners. But the energy and beautiful musical arrangements at their live shows demonstrate that this is a band that deserves the acclaim it receives. And they're most certainly a band worth checking out in person.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

"In Rainbows" Marks Radiohead's Triumphant Return

It's been a few days since Radiohead released their seventh LP to the masses — via a digital download offered through their website — and fans all over the Internet are already discussing whether or not this record can be considered one of the band's top albums of all time.

After repeated listens, one thing's for certain. This might very well be the band's best offering since 2000's Kid A.

Upon first hearing the album, it was hard for me to figure out whether or not it deserved such accolades. Was I being biased? Was I formulating this opinion simply because I expected Radiohead — a band almost universally known as one of the world's greatest contemporary musical acts — to put out something great?

Possibly. But though In Rainbows is somewhat sparse when compared to some of the band's previous work, it still contains those unique moments that make Radiohead records what they are. From the dance-like beats found on the album's opener, "15 Step," to the slowly-paced, mournful closer "Videotape," the songs on In Rainbows flow together almost flawlessly. While some songs, like "Bodysnatchers" and "Jigsaw Falling Into Place," seem to "rock out" the way the band's earlier works did, the majority of the tracks carry a subtle sense of majesty.

Each song contains carefully layered instrumental arrangements, some of which may be designed to catch listeners off guard. The fifth track, "All I Need," starts out as a quiet, relaxed piece that only evolves into one of the album's most breathtaking musical highlights — featuring the escalation of piano, percussion, and Thom Yorke's trademark wailing vocals — albeit for a very brief minute or so. "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" is another track that features layer upon layer of sound. By its conclusion, the song sounds as though it's taking place underwater, transporting listeners into a completely different realm.

The interesting thing about this album is the fact that the majority of the tracks aren't particularly new. Radiohead spent a good part of their time off after releasing 2003's Hail to the Thief, playing around in the studio and touring to test out new material. "Nude" is at least a decade old and a good chunk of the songs made their debut sometime last year while the group was touring, or even while Yorke played a few gigs around the time his solo album (The Eraser) was released. But while some of the songs are somewhat similar to their live versions, other songs are almost completely unrecognizable.

Case in point: "Reckoner." The track originally debuted a few years ago, rife with rollicking guitars and Yorke shouting "Reckoner! Pa pa pa!" But now it has turned into a more atmospheric piece with a repetitious percussive backdrop, strings, less in-your-face guitar parts, and more haunting vocals. Despite these drastic changes, it can also be considered one of the album's most memorable tracks.

Perhaps In Rainbows doesn't break new ground in the way that 1997's OK Computer or the previously-mentioned Kid A did. But the mere fact that it has caused such a stir amongst listeners, not just because of its unorthodox method of release, is a sign that the band is back in top form. It will be most interesting to see what the upcoming December discbox release of In Rainbows will have to offer.

Rating: A -