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High Violet

Good, but I can’t get behind the voice

Rating: 6 / 10

Patrick Freyne, 29 Apr 2010

Don’t The National know that the indie wagon-train has moved on from lush, orchestrated military indie to folksy whimsy? Silly The National! Still, it’s nice to see someone sticking to their guns. The National’s guns are Edge-like guitars, simple piano lines, harmonising high pitched backing vocals, cello chords, minor key synths, cymbal-crashes, a rhythm section providing propulsion rather than groove, judicious use of reverb and a slightly ill-fitting baritone lead vocal.

This latter element is the chink in The National’s armour. The song-writing is, as ever, very good (particularly ‘Anyone’s Ghost’, ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ and ‘Runaway’), and the arrangements are, by times, brilliant. I just can’t get behind Matt Berninger’s vocal. I just don’t buy the moody insouciance of the croon. Thing is, to me it doesn’t feel like his own moody insouciance. Now, hundreds of singers hide behind aural masks of this kind. I understand the impulse. It’s a basic tenet of neuro-linguistic programming. Not 100% confident of your right to take the stage? Borrow the inflections, accents and modulations of a great man (I’ve done it myself). But before you know it, it’s your vocal business suit and you’re stuck with it. At a certain point in a singer’s career this ceases to be problematic; Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger are examples of gentlemen who’ve earned the right (through application of genius) to their odd and “inauthentic” voices. Sometimes, like on cut-above, horn-filled tracks like ‘Runaway’, the mask and the singer blend into a beautifully unified whole, but at other points the real Matt Berninger’s just not there yet. Don’t get me wrong: in so many ways, High Violet is a very good record. But I am left wondering: what does Matt’s natural voice sound like.

Rating: 6 / 10
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