Monday, July 07, 2008

Music Review: The National - The Virginia EP

A collection of demos, b-sides, and live performances, The Virginia EP is a solid release from indie darlings/morose dudes The National. Although it doesn’t match up with the band’s most recent proper release, the much feted and breathlessly praised Boxer – and with the same cover style and font as that album, the EP is clearly meant to recall it – the EP is still a worthwhile release. With 12 songs and a running time of around 45 minutes, fans of the band certainly cannot complain about not getting their money’s worth. Even better, most of the songs are keepers and worth repeated listens.

The album is divided evenly between demos, studio cuts, and live tunes. Of the four demos, “Tall Saint” and “Forever After Days” are nearly album-ready and would have fit nicely on Boxer. “Rest of Years” is pretty rough even in demo form and suffers from oddly distant vocals. Final demo “Slow Show” is markedly different from the Boxer version. With an almost robotic musical and vocal arrangement, and significantly different lyrics that also appear on b-side “Blank Slate,” the song bears little resemblance to the finished album version. The demo seems rushed and cold; it gives little hint of the remarkable take eventually included on Boxer. Those indie dweebs interested in how a song’s lyrics and instrumentation evolve can geek out and find many other differences between the demo and finished versions.

Three of the four studio cuts are National originals, with the fourth being a cover version of Caroline Martin’s “Without Permission.” Originals “Santa Clara” and “Blank Slate” were previously issued as b-sides in the UK, and opening track “You’ve Done It Again, Virginia” is a previously unreleased version (a different version appeared on the “Lit Up” single). These three originals are all representative of both The National’s sound and the themes that recur throughout Matt Berninger’s lyrics.

The EP ends with four excellent live songs that give the listener a glimpse into what The National sound like in a live setting. Although the songs suffer from the visual element being taken away, and the version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Mansion on the Hill” sometimes seems a little forced and overwrought, the three other live songs will whet fans’ appetites for an official live album.

A radio session performance of “Lucky You” presents the song in a more stripped down manner, with Berninger’s vocals sounding far more weary and defeated than what appears on Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. “Fake Empire” and “About Today” are heavier on the horns and overall noise than their album counterparts. The reworked arrangement is used to great effect on “About Today,” which on Cherry Tree is goddamn depressing and certain to put a damper on anyone’s mood. The song’s overall theme of doubt and a relationship on the skids remains in the live cut, but added to it is a hint of the range of emotions the band is able to convey in concert.

The EP also includes Vincent Moon’s A Skin, A Night film that ostensibly covers the making of the album, interspersed with fragments of live performances. Though not exactly a booby prize, it doesn’t add much to the Boxer story, and its disorienting concert footage is an epileptic’s worst nightmare. One person’s art house documentary is another person’s nightmare of torture.

Any EP such as this is bound to have inherent flaws: the term b-side implies a certain inferiority to the songs that actually made the proper album, demos are sometimes difficult for even the most obsessed (er, dedicated) fan to listen to more than a few times, and a smattering of live songs can only hint at, and never fully convey, what it’s like to see a band on stage. Not quite a release solely for The National’s most loyal fans but also not the best starting point for those unfamiliar with the band, the Virginia EP is nevertheless a welcome addition to The National’s catalog. Fans most likely won’t walk away disappointed, but those not yet converted probably won’t be drinking the Kool-Aid if this is their first introduction to the band.

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