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The National
Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers

The bad news concerning the National's second album is that it once again finds the band wearing their influences on their proverbial sleeves. The attitude-fueled country ramblings here bring to mind the bitter melancholy of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, only at times the band segues into the sound of more modern acts, borrowing liberal doses of riffs and rhythm from the likes of The Pixies, the Jesus and Mary Chain, P.J. Harvey and the Afghan Whigs. Throw in a dose of mid-'70s New York punk (Patti Smith and Television) and you perhaps get an idea of where The National stand in the musical landscape.

However, there is also good news concerning Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. The upside is that these Ohio-to-Brooklyn, N.Y. transplants prove to be more than the sum of their influences. What easily could have been a tired retread of rock snob classics instead makes use of the past to provide a recognizable framework in which to deal with the emotional rescue necessary after a damaged romantic relationship.

This album's songs are well crafted and the performances inspired, certainly due in part to the expert work of Nick Lloyd and Interpol producer Peter Katis. But this album is also very soulful, and that is due to the band. While Katis attempts to refine The National's sound with the same claustrophobic mania that defined Interpol's debut, Lloyd steadies the ship by warming up this isolationist sound. Instead of solely relying upon the forlorn tone in Matt Berninger's vocals, the music also conveys the malaise with moody strings and vibrant acoustic guitar.

On the opener, "Cardinal Song," this tone is set early with the baritone vocals of Berninger, which are at times reminiscent of both Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen. By the end of the six-plus minute epic, light piano gives way to a full band arrangement including violin, acoustic guitar, bass and percussion. Intertwining the ideas of religious and romantic love, the song is both a hymn and a missive that drapes itself in musical and lyrical themes that spill out over the remaining eleven tracks. Utilizing the double meaning of the word "cardinal," Berninger coyly states, "Don't ever let her see your cardinal lie" to express the similarities in coping with the difficulties of both sexual and religious relations.

Building on the gentle spiritual tones of "Cardinal Song," "Slipping Husband" deals with the themes of love and lies with the narrative of a man falling away from his wife and family. The band writhes along, supporting the pain of the vocal before exploding at the end of the final break. Berninger whispers the phrase "Dear we better get a drink in you before you start to bore us" four times in succession before blasting into a full tilt Black Francis-esque scream on the last delivery, which sends the band lurching and churning into the final chorus with the backing choir chanting "Don't forget the alcohol." This track exemplifies The National's ability to fuse multiple influences into a new and addictive creation. Feel free to press repeat and wallow in its beauty.

Part of what is great about this album is the ability of the band to transition from a churlish track such as "Slipping Husband" to two consecutive mid-tempo numbers with "90 Mile Water Wall" and "It Never Happened" (which gravitate more towards gospel than rock), before returning to a high-octane electric pulse with "Murder Me Rachael." The former two songs are dirge-like and poignant, while the latter is a wall of driving bass, screeching guitar feedback and strings, with Berninger elevating his vocals to a howl as he repeatedly urges his cheating love to end his agony.

Things continue at this rough and raw pace with "Available," which sees Scott Devendorf and Bryce Dessner lifting a few riffs from Dirty-era Sonic Youth, deconstructing them and rebuilding them as a driving wall-of-sound that carries the vocals as an undercurrent rather than as the focal point for the first time on the album. The production work of Katis is evident here, as the result is a maudlin club number that recalls Joy Division in much the same way that Interpol did on their debut.

The album closes with "Lucky You," a barroom ballad that sees The National slipping back into a more dulcet delivery like the one used on "Cardinal Song." As the piano enters the mix at the outset of the second verse it is easy to envision this song being played in an arena with a sea of lighters flickering in the darkness. A breakdown of textured drum-machine rhythms sets up the last chorus, the piano reenters and Berninger's voice is laid bare, no longer baritone or howling, now simply honest.

The National find themselves on the precipice of a breakthrough with the release of Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. They have accomplished this with what seems to be a simple recipe — unraveling the raw emotions that epitomize the highs and lows of a tumultuous relationship. Listening to this album brings an anticipation that for all its greatness, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers is but a stepping-stone to a greater and perhaps crowning achievement in upcoming years.

by Jason Korenkiewicz

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