Thanks to a roster including Cocteau Twins and Pixies, UK imprint 4AD has maintained its status as a force in independent music for more than 30 years. Author Martin Aston talks about his exhaustive new history of the label.
The National have worn a lot of hats since their 2001 debut, but they’ve never been able to shake the rural, book-smart, quiet malevolence of the Midwest. The Brooklyn-groomed, Ohio-bred indie rock quintet’s fifth full-length album navigates that lonely dirt road where swagger meets desperation like a seasoned tour guide, and while it may take a few songs to get going, there are treasures to be found for patient passengers. The National's profile rose considerably after 2007’s critically acclaimed The Boxer, and they have used that capital to craft a flawed gem of a record that highlights their strengths and weaknesses with copious amounts of red ink.
After expanding his intimate indie folk sound about as far as it could go on the last Iron & Wine album, Kiss Each Other Clean, Sam Beam (and trusty producer Brian Deck) take a step back on Ghost on Ghost and deliver something less suited for large arenas and more late-night jazz club-sized. The arrangements on that album were stuffed with instruments and seemed built to reach the back row; this time there are still plenty of horns, violins, and female backing vocals in the mix, but they are employed with a much lighter touch. Working with jazz drummer Brian Blade and a standup bass and mixing together elements of country, jazz, indie rock, and soft rock, the album has a much more intimate feel that suits Beam's quietly soulful vocals much more naturally.
Upon first spin, Trouble Will Find Me, the warm, wistful, and weary sixth long-player from The National, sounds a lot like 2010's warm, wistful, and weary High Violet, but where the former was built on a foundation of suburban despondency and casual, middle class self-destruction (and skillfully juggled melodrama and dark comedy), the latter feels mired in regret, seeking refuge in the arms of old friends and lost lovers, sounding for all the world like a single cube of ice lazily swirling about a recently drained tumbler of single malt scotch, a notion best intoned on early album standout "Demons," which casually announces "I am secretly in love with everyone I grew up with."
Laconic California indie minstrel M. Ward's fifth offering is a thrift shop photo album filled with histories that may or may not have been, dust bowl carnival rides, and slices of sunlit Western Americana so thick that you need a broom to sweep up the bits that fall off of the knife. Ward makes records that sound like he just wandered in off the street with a few friends and hit the record button, but what would feel lazy and unfocused in less confident hands comes off like a tutorial in old-school songwriting and performance that hearkens back to the days of Hank Williams and Leadbelly if they had had access to a modern-day studio.