The National has sold out four of five nights at NYC's Bowery Ballroom. Maybe even the fifth night by now. Now they're also opening for Arcade Fire. And there's documentary about their forthcoming album.
And I've tried, I promise. I've crossed croc-crowded rivers for the National. I've excused the stupid fashion-victim sunglasses in the video for "Abel." I've excused that song's well-worn premise of high-school poetry about a buddy or relative who drinks too much or battles mental illness or both. I've listened to them play to the edges of their still-developing talents, feeling much like a voyeur, and not in a good way.
I cannot guess their intentions. They don't have the chops to make experminetal song structures interesting. I heard a new song, it sounded like a demo, an unfinished attmept at an "With or Without You" alt-structure pop song. Were the National on a large label, Pitchfreak would pan their new ... wait - they sorta were, if you consider that their debut was on Brassland and distrubuted by Southern/Universal. Now they're indie again, with major league but hands-off Warner distro (ADA). Hands-off for now, that is.
And didn't I see somewhere that the new album was supposed to be called Freak Perfume? Man, that would have been a big mistake. (Exclusive!) Good thing they changed that.
So here allow me to indulge in old-fartdom and say they remind me of a late-eighties, early nineties outfit, who explain both my conflicted interest in the National and how what the National attempts can be done better, although maybe not by the Sidewinders.
I compare them to the Sidewinders because like the National, the Sidewinders did nothing special but did it well, and only appealed to those college-age kids unready to hear something more challenging, even if more challenging indie rock could make it to their ears, at least back before this Internet thing I hate so much, but then again, in the 15+ intervening years, the promo machine has caught up and has co-opted the internet as fully as it had co-opted what arrived to small campus radio stations and in magazines in the early nineties. (hi, Idolator)
How did the Sidewinders spring into mind upon my exposure to the National? Why, their song "Abel", in another form, and almost as corny, was written by the Sidewinders (among others):
Other facets don't match, like the National's appeal leading to sold out four-night stands and the Sidewinders' relative obscurity, even in their time. But to me they sound the same, i.e as hokey as they are appealing. It's not that they sound similar - both languish in different musical tropes and cliches of their respective times, but the aesthetics seem the same. The National could easily cover this song and pass it off as their own:
I was first exposed to the Sidewinders via a cheesy rock station in northern New Jersey, WDHA. Reliable but often tasteless and awfully narrow classic rock selections, yet also beneath sponsors' radar enough that DJs still had the freedom to slip in something from Pleased to Meet Me or the Sidewinders, who seemed to fall into the realm of classic-rock radio's mild acceptance of paisley undergrounders like the Long Ryders or pseudo-psych Brits like XTC or the Cult (the first album). For instance, they played the shit out of this:
Sidewinders - Witchdoctor From Witchdoctor (1988), a shaky, uneven album, not without highlights, and oh-so forced in places. For instance, the lyrics on the following ring cringe-worthy, but try not singing along with the title chorus:
This album added another Neil Diamond cover to the world, probably not needed (yeah, yeah, I know there's millions, even the 'Mats did it live), but it's one of my faves, aside from Shane MacGowan's cover of "Cracklin' Rosie," although I like the idea of Shane's version less than actually hearing it, since his covering of that song was about as inevitable as his early death.
Things got better before they ended. On their third and final album (there's a debut I've never heard, but I don't think it was considered a mature effort) 1990's Auntie Ramos's Pool Hall, the Sidewinders get style points over the National - they covered Love's "7 and 7 Is" waaaaay before other American indie rockers dared go there. Although it was the Damned's mid-eighties version of "Alone Again Or" that made me go back and find Love, the Sidewinders' version made me love Love more, and again.
Sidewinders - 7 and 7 Is (from Auntie Ramos's Pool Hall, 1990)
The Sidewinders again notch style points for writing a song about an Andre Dubus short story. At least I think they did:
Great driving and drinking music, at least in its time, if you were of the age to find it in its time. Maybe I dislike the National becuase I'm jealous that I'm no longer young enough, or naive enough, to have them hit me in the right gut, the muscle memory I've lost, over time, that allowed me to enjoy the ephemeral delights described in yearning songs by any number of proto-emo rock bands before I married, worked like a dog, lost a job, had a kid, worked hard again, resigned painfully from a job I loved because it was dysfunctional, dealt with my parents hitting old age and illness like a hidden wall to the point where I worry about their financial situation as much as my own, maybe more.
Nothing against single people - I was them, once upon a time, for a long time. And everyone's got problems. But when I walk the Brooklyn sidewalks and pass some young hipsters talking with each other, or on their phones, in a heated conversation about some sort of personal drama between friends or lovers or landlords, I laugh to myself about how little I knew that all of that stuff mattered close to nothing in comparison with concerns that evolve out of finding the proper daycare, or dealing with a parent with Parkinson's, or the possibilty of your child suffering from asthma because of inconsiderate neighbors you now foolishly threatened with physical harm (although they bought it, and that was kinda cool). That's not to say my problems are more real, just to say that if the kind of social drama that infrequently raised its head ten years were to raise its head now ( so and so are breaking up, so and so lost their job, so and so is an addict, so and so talked shit about so and so) I'd be pretty uncaring. There's point in life where family becomes priority out of necessity. And outside of that priority, I have time to lend an ear, but it's every man or woman for themselves, and it certainly won't keep me up nights. It seems like an entirely different life. I knew my life would change, but I'm a tad stunned by how fast I forgot the feel of the previous life.
That's when I find myself humming "We Don't Do That Anymore," surprised that a song could come back and have a whole new purpose to it, 17 years later. Time will tell if any of the National's work can find a second act like that. Right now, I don't hear it.