AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #243 : THE NATIONAL (2)

It was back in November 2016 that I pulled together a 10-song ICA featuring The National.

It was a tough task; at the time, the band had released six albums and I decided to go only with tracks from the third, fourth and fifth albums as I felt that was the era when they were truly at the top of their game and nobody came close to matching their quality and consistency over the five-year period concerned.

There were a handful of very positive responses which delighted me. As always, there were suggestions about songs that didn’t make the cut while some folk felt there should have been room for some earlier material along with songs from Trouble Will Find Me, the album released in 2013, the most recent at the time I pulled together the ICA.

The National have since released Sleep Well Best (2017) and I Am Easy To Find (2019), a situation which more than enables me to have a stab at Volume 2. This can also be taken in lieu of me wanting to talk positively about the most recent album and the fact that their live show, outdoors at the Kelvingrove Bandstand in Glasgow during an unrelenting downpour, was another highlight of the gigs in 2019.

None of the tracks on the previous ICA – Secret Meeting, Mistaken For Strangers, Apartment Story, Conversation 16, Abel, Daughters of the Soho Riots, Slow Show, Bloodbuzz Ohio, Start a War, and Mr November – are eligible today.

Side A

1. Fake Empire (from Boxer, 2007)

The difficulty last time round was there were just too many tracks that I wanted to include but couldn’t.  Fake Empire, from 2007’s Boxer went head-to-head with Secret Meeting from 2005’s Alligator for the right to be Track 1 on Side A, and whoever lost out wouldn’t get in as that was the only place they would have fitted.  In the end, Secret Meeting got the nod for the ICA only on account of it being followed immediately by Mistaken for Strangers and I didn’t want to open with the first two songs off Boxer.

Fake Empire gets in this time round with no doubt at all.  If you hadn’t by chance ever heard The National before this song, it offers a perfect introduction of intriguing and inventive music, topped by a voice that melts hearts.

2. Don’t Swallow The Cap (from Trouble Will Find Me, 2013)

Last time round I said that songs from Trouble Will Find Me hadn’t made the cut as I felt the album was just too much like the band going through the motions somewhat – it just didn’t match the really high standards of what had come before.

The gig last summer, and believe me when I say that the rain was of biblical proportions that somehow just added to the occasion, brought home the fact that some of the songs on the album were as good as any throughout their entire career.  Don’t Swallow The Cap came very early in the set, just at the point when the rain got so hard that if the band had been any less than stellar, it would have been tempting to go home.  They had opened with four tracks from the new album and just as everyone was wondering if it was going to be a show in which all the new material was played before old favourites were dusted down…..this gave everyone such a huge lift and it got as loud a cheer as anything else until…..

3. I Need My Girl (from Trouble Will Find Me, 2013)

….a few songs later when they introduced local heroine Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches who sang backing vocals on this and then stayed on for a one-off performance in which she and Matt Berninger paid tribute to the late Scott Hutchison with a rendition of My Backwards Walk, a song by Frightened Rabbit.

It was a two-day stint at Kelvingrove and I consider myself very lucky to have been there on the night this took place (the following night, the show was bathed in glorious sunshine!).  I Need My Girl sounded lovely and it feels just perfect to slow things down at this juncture.

4. Rylan (from I Am Easy To Find, 2019)

I Am Easy To Find was a very different sort of album. There was a bit of electronica (more on that later) but most noticeable was the cast of female musicians playing and singing alongside the regulars.  Matt Berninger even handed over lead vocal duties on a few numbers and it did take a bit of getting used to.  It’s one of those albums that improves on repeated listens, with many of the songs having nuances best appreciated when they become familiar.

Rylan was unusual for the fact that it sounded like vintage-era The National and was quite different from the other 15 tracks.  I took an instant liking to this one and it remains a favourite of all songs from all bands in 2019.

5. England (from High Violet, 2010)

In response to one of the comments last time out, I confessed that if the ICA had been 11 tracks in length, then England would have been included.  It’s one that highlights what’s so good about the band.  It’s a complicated and ambitious number that sees changes in tempo accompanied by all sorts of instrumentation, and a vocal delivery that goes from reflective and morsose to celebratory and joyous.  It’t the sort of song that ends one side of a piece of vinyl and demands that you flip it over.

SIDE B

1. You Had Your Soul With You (from I Am Easy To Find, 2009)

Curveball time. The opening track of the latest album was like nothing they had done before. Initially unsettling, it soon becomes intriguing and magnificent.  The co-vocal on this one comes from Gail Ann Dorsey, familiar to many as part of David Bowie‘s touring band for some 20 years from the mid-90s.  This is a band who have produced some very beautiful slow songs. Just feels right to start the second side with one of their finest.

2. Blank Slate (b-side of Mistaken For Strangers, 2007)

Regular readers will know of my love for the vocal style and delivery of Paul Quinn.  Let’s simply say that the first time I heard this, it took me back.  It’s also a more than decent tune and all told, far too good to have been thrown away as a b-side.

3. The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness (from Sleep Well Beast, 2017)

Sleep Well Beast is a very fine album and I found myself wanting to find room for four tracks but they ended up, as so many songs under consideration for the previous ICA, on the outside looking in as they just didn’t fit into what I think is a well-structured and balanced running order.  This track was the first single lifted from it, preceeding the album by a full four months, and its multi-layered sound gave everyone an idea of what to expect with the subtle use of the trumpet behind the piano, guitar and drums harking back to the classic era albums.  There’s a wee bit of noodling mid-track, but I can forgive them as it just provides a platform for a great vocal finish.  I can’t explain it any other way.

4. Graceless (from Trouble Will Find Me, 2013)

Another which owes its incusion to the Glasgow live show.  Matt Berninger is famed for leaping off the stage singing songs while making his way through an auditorium, but the weather on the night meant that wasn’t on the agenda.

Or so we thought……for the next thing we know he’s donned a rainmac similar to what we were all given free of charge on arrival and he’s on his way, not giving a care for his well-being or safety.  And the band are going full-tilt at one of the fastest and most energetic songs they’ve ever recorded.  He eventually got back to the stage in one piece…..looking quite stunned!

5. Ada (from Boxer, 2007)

The final words come from my dear friend Echorich from his gentle admonishment last time around:-

The National are one of those bands that keeps me interested in homegrown music. I am a shamless Anglophile, if that wasn’t already pretty evident, but there is something about The National that really hits that sweet spot for me. This is a great selection JC. My ICA would have to include Ada from Boxer the use of brass on the song provides a wonderful, timeless quality to the song. It would definitely be my song # 10 to close the set.

He’s right……….he usually is.

JC

3 thoughts on “AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #243 : THE NATIONAL (2)

  1. Nice one, JC. I get where folks might think that the band were going through the motions in the latter records. But they have a distinctively sophisticated sound, and if they want to keep on refining it that’s okay with me. Even if it’s a little same-y it’s still well played, well produced, relatable and intelligent. The line “Everything I love is on the table” from Don’t Swallow The Cap nicely sums up what the band is about.

  2. Thanks for the hat tip JC! And JTFL makes a great point. The National are cerebral, soulful, dense, ethereal…but they lay it on the line. Recently I’ve been obsessed with the opening track from High Violet – Terrible Love. It’s a claustrophobic volcano of a song.

  3. I’ve just finished playing both these ICAs back to back on a long morning run.
    Ica 2 is better.
    Just.

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