Another album that I listened to in my quest to listen to the critical picks of the ’00’s was The National’s Alligator. Boxer, the album that followed has become my go-to record for listening straight through. I won’t bore you with superlatives, but I will share something interesting that I’ve been mulling over.
It took a while for Boxer to permeate my musical conciousness. I had been a fan of “Fake Empires,” but most of the songs are so low key that all of the careful, subtle details went into the backdoor of my ears without every making themselves obvious. As I began to really hear more of it, I had a hard time figuring out what intangible thing made the production sound so fresh to me. Then it hit me; I was trying to project too much on the music. The reason that it sounded unique is that it is completely transparent, musically honest.
There are no production “tricks,” with the exception of some reverb and limited distortion on the guitars, everything is clean. While it’s not acoustic, there’s nothing that you couldn’t reproduce live. Matt Berninger sounds like he’s singing to you because his voice is not hidden behind layers of post-production. There is nowhere to hide
There is also nothing new in the structures of the songs; we’ve heard them a thousand times in other rock songs. They are so perfectly executed however, that this becomes an asset rather than a liability. This is one of the things that I like most about the album. Recording and musical technology is evolving so fast that it’s refreshing to hear a band that does everything with thoughtful orchestrations, solid songwriting, and supremely perfect execution.
A note on those orchestrations: music technology has lowered the price of recording and releasing music greatly, but has also made big, lush music with large numbers of session players obsolete and economically illogical. One of the great pleasures of the movie Ray were the scenes of big recording sessions (especially “Georgia On My Mind,” with full gospel choir and studio orchestra). I don’t have any information about the cost of this record, but I like that they went after that full, rich sound. Every time I listen to it I hear something new, some instrumental motif or riff that I never picked up on before.
If I had to pick something to single out for praise, I would have to choose Bryan Devendorf’s drumming and their recording engineer’s technique. Throughout the record, the drums sound beautiful. I’ve embedded “Mistaken for Strangers,” but the YouTube compression has killed it. Listen to it from a good quality file, or the CD. You can hear the rattles in the snare drum, the tom toms sound full, and the bass drum has not been overproduced to abstraction; in short, the drums sound like an instrument. It is also a credit to how tight the band is that Devendorf is free to drum interesting, syncopated patterns and not just be a metronome.
“Mistaken For Strangers” isn’t my favorite track on the album, but my heart jumps a little every time I hear the drums come in.