Released on July 3, 2001
CD, LP, Digital
The National are five displaced Ohioans living in New York -- two sets of brothers and one best friend. They play smart, naked, and bracing rock music. No Depression said, "The National has created nearly a dozen picture-perfect Americana bar-soaked gems with its debut album." Creative Loafing described it as a "merciless hybrid of plaintive American folk with the mordant gallows humor of Nick Cave and Jarvis Cocker." "Full of simple songs that convey complex emotions," wrote Billboard, "this dazzling debut should be the portent of good things to come."
PORTLAND MERCURY (Portland, OR) by Julianne Shepherd: I believe that the majority of non-musicians relate to vocals in music, above all other aspects... [The National] have one of those singers. Their singer, whose name is Matt Berninger, adds a lot of depth. Indeed, he makes the band. His voice is low and manly, so much that it swaggers; he doesn't even really emphasize his consonants very much. Because of this, I have created a whole persona about Matt Berninger in my mind. I think he is the guy in the band who gets sort of drunk before every show, and he's never sloppy, but it makes him sort of sassy and depressed. Perhaps he is drinking to mask his depression. After all, he sings the line, "I have nobody left to forget/ I guess that's what assholes get." Matt Berninger is awesome.
NO DEPRESSION #36 (Nov/Dec 2001) by Jason MacNeil: Originally from Ohio and now based in New York, The National has created nearly a dozen picture-perfect Americana bar-soaked gems with its debut album. From the opening notes of "Beautiful Head", the delicate line between polished roots-oriented pop and alt-country has rarely been walked so deliberately with the payoff so favorable.
Singer Matt Berninger will draw comparisons to Leonard Cohen at times, but Ryan Adams and even Tom Waits come to mind in certain instances. Particularly pretty is "American Mary", which veers toward Wilco territory minus the spacey guitar-jangle climax.
Most of the songs revolve around booze, women and the difficulties and joys of both, including "Bitters & Absolut" and the twangy "Watching You Well", the latter reminiscent of the Rolling Stones circa Let It Bleed. Only on "Son" does the idea of filler rear its ugly head.
The highlight by far is "Theory Of The Crows", a slowly building waltz through everyday impersonal life and youthful dreams dashed. "And if I forget you/I'll have nobody left to forget/I guess that's what assholes get," Berninger utters over a simple front-porch backbeat. Listening to it, you can imagine him ordering another double.
ARTVOICE (Buffalo, NY) by Brandon Stosuy: Have You Heard the National Guitar? The National is that band who right now makes me feel something. Sure, emotion is suspect in our limpid digital age, a time in which the one-dimensional ho-hum of willful captivity is an ideal-but hey! The National's self-titled record (Brassland Records), a chapbook of souls, or better yet, a discarded Farmer's Almanac blooming with revelatory pencil sketches, causes me to think so much about leaves blowing through half-closed windows in my attic and the boundaries of overgrown orchards covering life in a crisp uneven blanket, that I forget my cynicism, my consistent lack of sleep, and remember, suddently, myself.
When I try to explain The National, my first inclination is to dig up generalizations, to mumble of deep-voiced melancholic male singers a la Nick Cave, the guy from Tindersticks, or Leonard Cohen. Having secured this meager indie-rock shop talk, I tend to place said imaginary singer in front of a Southern-sounding rock band like Lampchop, dipping and sawing and spinning in a lacey backyard below the Mason-Dixon. Sure, but The National aren't from the South; in fact, they come from Brooklyn via Ohio. Like d.a. levy's incantory poems about rust and rivers in Cleveland, they sing through Midwestern ice, teeth, devining rods, shape-shifting emptiness, ghosts, and silence. Thematically, The National are closely linked to lately hyped London trio The Clientele. Yeah: rain and stars. The National, though, are sort of the working class version of The Clientele, I'd say. Not that The Clientele are upperclass or anything?they just seems more removed. They're fans of Surrealism and Marquez, for example (c'mon, you know what I mean). Regardless, in the end, The National have most definitely whittled my favorite rock record of the year. It's a stoic Bildungsroman penned in smoke, an unusually sucessful case of soul-searching.
NEW YORK TIMES (New York, NY) by Jon Pareles: In the National's songs, on the rainy border of folk-rock and mope-rock, fading love lingers just enough to keep the singer tortured by all the things he could have done.
VILLAGE VOICE (New York, NY) by Irene Yadao: The National is yet another Brooklyn gem among gems, but this band's more Americana--and much more somber--than their Williamsburg counterparts. Their self-titled debut unravels itself in poignant, but painful scenes from a movie about a man's emotional decadence: There's lots of booze and women involved. There's also the woman that got away. There's a bit of self-deprecation. And there are fatalistic reflections on life and love. Indulge yourselves.
VILLAGE VOICE (New York, NY): Their Brooklyn by way of Ohio tilt on Americana nicely balances Wilco with Leonard Cohen, but they eschew the extravagance that sometimes characterizes the former, and instead cushion their somber tales of emotional decadence with less frill.
ALLMUSIC.COM (Internet): This Ohio-based band strikes a lush, adorable balance between the country-pop of bands such as Jayhawks and Golden Smog and the gloomy, depressing crooning of Tom Waits. Lead singer Matt Berninger manages to transcend leveling the fine background with some reflection and introspection on "Cold Girl Fever" and "Watching You Well." The country hues touched on in "American Mary" are only surpassed by the album's perfect song "Theory of the Crows," a morbid waltz through loneliness and loss. Throughout it all, the band manages not only to exceed their pigeonholed genres but gives a fresh perspective with brilliantly crafted numbers. Starting up where Wilco left off with their Summerteeth album, the group delivers a generous heaping of Americana and alt-country. Brilliant. 4/5 stars.
BOSTON PHOENIX (Boston, MA) by Jonathan Perry: ...a self-assured, well-written debut from a band who get just about everything right. The National understand that the best rock is built on tension carved from contradictory impulses: simplicity and sophistication; decadence and decorum; primal urge and cerebral reflection.
CITYBEAT (Cincinnati, OH): The National are a Brooklyn-based band of former area musicians, whose self-titled debut is a intriguing collection of smart, brooding Indie Rock.
CITYBEAT (Cincinnati, OH) by Mike Breen: "Really, I think our sound is placeless, suburban," says drummer Bryan Devendorf, "Picture a keg party on a deck overlooking a stand of buckeyes, oaks and maples. The beer flows, cigarette butts are jammed in the spaces between the planks of the deck. Over the white noise of voices, keg sounds, lighters igniting, music peals from a ghetto blaster. That's the music we hear."
"I love the first album, but the next one will have more firepower for us," [bassist Aaron] Dessner says. "If the debut is kinda smoky and somber, the next one will be more explosive, more like a punch in the face. Maybe we should call it Fuck Osama or something."
AUDIOGALAXY.COM (Internet) by Lacey Tauber: Yes, the National are simultaneously retro and modern in the best way possible. Passing over decades of over-production and devotion to shtick, the National look back to a golden era of rock and country, taking cues from Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Leonard Cohen, even Johnny Cash. Yet at the same time, they filter through the endless barrage of sameness in music today, and find influences in modern Indie Rock, like Black Heart Procession, fellow Brooklyn-ites Clem Snide, and fellow Ohioans Guided by Voices... Setting the National apart even more as an Indie Rock force to be reckoned with are their intelligent, heartstring-tugging lyrics. At times their story-songs recall such classic American storytellers as John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen, yet the National avoid flag-swaddled patriotism by glorifying suburban existence, dark side and all... The fact that the National can handle both styles equally well is testament to their strength as a band and probably to their staying power... But the National is already a perfect example of what Indie Rock should be, and what it could become if it only tried.
CREATIVE LOAFING (Atlanta, GA) by J. Edward Keyes: Three songs into the self-titled debut from The National, Matt Berninger - himself an outsider and something of an obsessive - spits out the lyric: "I hope you don't remember me ... I don't want to know what you're thinking/I'm looking out the window, I'm sitting here just fucking drinking." It's a naked, bracing moment, one steeped deep in regret and despair. It's the sad confession of a man too sober to forget his mistakes but too drunk to summon anything other than bilious self-loathing.
The National is full of moments like these: lovers described as nightingales, workers described as crows. More than anything else, the record conjures the image of a sick and sweating man alone at a table inside a cabin that's dark as tarpaper, half-empty bottle next to him, letter full of confessions before him.
"I don't know if I'd call it self-loathing," says Berninger, speaking from the Manhattan-based Web-design company where he works. "I think it's more like self-indulgence. A lot of these songs were written in the winter when it was cold, and I'd go home and drink and dwell on mistakes I'd made. There's a lot of pining on the record."
PHILADELPHIA CITY PAPER (Philadelphia, PA) by Brian Howard: "Do not tell me I've changed... you're just raising your standards," charges The National's Matt Berninger, making a solid if self-effacing point. The song, "Beautiful Head," kicks off the band's self-titled debut (on Alec Hanley Bemis' Brassland label) with the kind of sad-sack love story that pops up again and again on the album. With a bit of a country rock feel and the songwriting sensibility of, say, Leonard Cohen, this Brooklyn-based quintet of transplanted Ohioans mingles an urbane swagger with more middle-American sensibilities. On the unflinchingly sobering "Bitters & Absolut" Berninger and guest Nathalie Jonas detail a relationship gone awry. When Berninger, a brilliant lyricist and chronicler of emotional minutia, sings in his bluntly plaintive voice "Remember when you dipped your hand, I never saw it coming... you took the wind out of me," it's like getting stung in the gut with a medicine ball. Which isn't to say The National is a painful experience, but you'll more likely than not face up to some of your dusky demons in their enchanted little world.
IN PITTSBURGH (Pittsburgh, PA): Picks of the Week: Most everyone has had a life-altering, mind-blowing conversation that induces a spiritual/mental epiphany. Imagine these conversations being repeated by a soothing, deep voice, while mellow guitars strum in the background. This gives you a pretty good idea of the Brooklyn-based band the National. Listening to their self-titled record is like looking through an old photo album: a slew of random impressions manage to strike abstract and unexplainable chords in your heart.
WASHINGTON CITY PAPER (Washington, DC) by Richard Byrne: Pick of the Week: The press nonsense that arrived along with Brooklyn-via-Ohio band the National's eponymous CD hails its sound as "classic American music." Slip the disc into the player, however, and what flows from the speakers is tuneful but glum stuff, more reminiscent of Australia's Go-Betweens ("Anna Freud") or moody Brit strummers such as the Smiths or Prefab Sprout. There's world-weariness in the bones of songs like "Cold Girl Fever" and "Son" that sounds more Brighton (think Quadrophenia) than Brooklyn, and a melancholic deadpan ache in singer Matt Berninger's voice that lingers just below the melodic thrum put together by two pairs of brothers (Scott and Bryan Devendorf and Aaron and Bryce Dessner). The band's debut is exquisitely wrought, and the National is probably worth a trip to Arlington when it plays...at the Galaxy Hut.
CHICAGO SUN-TIMES (Chicago, IL): Two sets of brothers (Scott and Bryan Devendorf, Aaron and Bryce Dessner) and one friend (Matt Berninger) may now live in Brooklyn but their music hails back to their Ohio roots. Berninger's rough-voiced vocals drift easily around an easy backbeat, melodic guitars and suggestive keyboards. Classic American roots rock with a distinctive sound all its own.
COLUMBUS ALIVE (Columbus, OH): The National's eponymous disc is the Ohio-expatriates-turned-Brooklyn-dwellers debut and the first release for new borough-based indie label Brassland. If nothing else, The National proves that you can take the band out of Ohio, but you can't take Ohio out of the band. The group must stick out like sore thumbs there, with a decided Midwestern drawl, playing indie rock with a down-home and organic temperament. The bio likes to trot Leonard Cohen's influence out, though Tom Waits is probably a more accurate fit. ?this disc shows a lot of promise, making The National one to keep an ear on.-Brian O'Neill
BLUE DOG PRESS (Buffalo, NY): They call it Post-Rock. What they really mean is Pre-Crap. The National, whiskeyed and wearyed intellectuals with a penchant for wistful melodies and existential angst, haven't exactly left rock behind on their excellent self-titled album; rather, they've found a means by which to reinvigorate it by looking sideways instead of merely backward, forward, or straight into the current malaise of mediocrity (at best.) Real songs. Played and sung and written by real people. No videos, but plenty of hooks.
PUNMASTER'S MUSICWIRE (Internet) by Baba O'Riled: From the Heartland to the Wasteland: The National's Emotional Wreck & Roll The National are five Cincinnati kids, reconvened in New York City and developing a downtown musical pedigree (guitarist Bryce Dessner has recorded with John Zorn and Clogs, his superb Aussie-American world-music side project) while ringing every doorbell on the alt.rock side of the street. At a recent show, their energetic, distortion-free strumming brought to mind Jersey lo-fi legends The Feelies, and Dessner's emotive slide playing sprayed weather-both rainbow and fog-all over the tunes just the way former Cincy garage-soulster Rick McCollum used to do it for The Afghan Whigs. Singer Matt Berninger doesn't so much sing onstage as incant, intone, dangling a cig from his fingers like some languid, post-grunge Aznavour.
The band's eponymous debut disc is smokier and more somber than their live set, but remains a memorable spin, Berninger's baleful and breathy poetry garlanding a take on American roots rock that's as much about blank faces and silent spaces as it is about mystery trains, wheels-on-fire or chestnut mares. The Terminal America on display here is the buzzed back-alley feel-up behind the Memorial Day parade, the flask of Bushmill's stashed behind the wedding china, the war hero with the pain-killer jones. Entropy is never far off and, seemingly, never unwelcome.
Berninger's buttery cognac voice (perhaps a tough sell to a U.S. pop public that bounces back and forth between Creed-style iron-tonsiled howlers and American Hi Fi punque-pop crooners) compels comparison to the Tindersticks' Stuart Staples, a folksier Ian Curtis, a less arch Mark Kozelek. Although the CD opener, "Beautiful Head," is an uncomfortable vocal balancing act, listeners willing to suspend their hook-lust for forty-five and delve farther into the 0's and 1's will be rewarded by a series of smoldering out-folk meditations and deftly-literary barbed-wire lyrics that limn the erosion of bonds between brother and brother, son and mother, lover and lover. Lovingly-ravaged snapshots of loss and disaffection like the improbably catchy "Cold Girl Fever," or the elegiac kiss-off "American Mary" blend to sobering effect imagistic verses and shadowy musical backdrops. These skillfully-unsettling midnight confessions even manage to startle with the unexpected art-school flourish (the subway-tunnel hallucinations of "29 Years") or lyrical knife-twist ("What are you for/Now that I've got hardcore?").
Close your eyes and imagine Leonard Cohen, after-hours in a hangdog East Village tap room, reading Jesus' Son over some posthumous Richard Manuel four-track piano reveries. Feel the chill in your spine? It's like that. The National's fine debut is an uneven but uncommonly fascinating roadmap of the Invisible Republic, pregnant, promising as hell, and anything but garden-variety. In a pop milieu where risk-takers are rare as white rhinos, this sort of wire-walking is always well worth a listen.