Saturday, May 31, 2008
Virginia EP - The National
Beggars Banquet Records.
SCQ Rating: 66%
A hard rain is blowing through Toronto tonight, giving the darkest shadows from my balcony a grayish complexion and forcing lone strangers to run from their subway stops home. Sitting alone with a drink on this Friday midnight, watching lightning anticipate its thunderous companion, the Virginia EP has never sounded quite so appropriate. As a near one-year anniversary after the release of Boxer, The National have compiled this celebratory DVD/CD release: a documentary on the making of their now classic 2007 album and a generous EP of B-sides, demos, and live renditions.
Virginia EP’s sequencing makes the most of its arsenal, opening with three B-sides (one previously unreleased, the other two available on UK singles), several demos, a few live tracks and covers thrown in for good measure. Unlike the Cherry Tree EP, which acted as a prelude to the National’s commercial breakthrough, this EP is more of an incentive for die-hard collectors, subdued beyond their trademarked restraints and unabashed at these often unfinished ideas. The clear ruler of these bruised excursions must be ‘Slow Song’, a Boxer demo featured in its incubated stage that showed little chance of becoming the celebrated song we now know and love. That this shambled demo is prefaced by ‘Rest of Years’, another scrapper that likely wouldn’t have gotten the band signed, clearly marks the mid-point of the Virginia EP as a dead-zone, the only unavoidable low-point that will have even superfans reaching for their skip buttons. Such shoddiness should be expected on a release that celebrates roads not taken, but Virginia EP prevails, for the most part, by sticking tight to Boxer’s bittersweet formula.
At its romanticized best, Virginia EP can be viewed as a smoked-out, new National album, a product of the band at its most wearily adventurous following some heavy 5am afterparty. ‘Santa Clara’ and ‘Blank Slate’ are easily LP-caliber material, so much that it’s difficult to resist the urge to mentally fit them among Boxer’s sequencing. ‘Tall Saint’, a demo that supports the fable that the National bravely tossed out all of their pre-existing ideas before recording Boxer, sounds closer to the extroverted rock of Alligator, while the beautiful ‘Lucky You’ displays the NY band at their most fresh-faced and fed-up. The live tracks offer the long-awaited cathartic release that had been ignored all record; the seething majesty of Springsteen’s ‘Mansion on a Hill’ and ‘About Today’s newly explosive conclusion. Strangely enough, the live material congers up conflicting impressions of U2; their chiming guitars and anthemic embellishments, luckily, are blurred, downcast, and finds the National at a crossroads between indie giants and commercial stardom.
Of course, had my “5am afterparty" record actually been the case, this collection would be a disaster; the kind of under-the-rug release only fans on Amazon would be staking as their personal favourite. Here, with all these relics and orphans laid bare, bruised and rejected, the Virginia EP only provides additional enticement to bring this band closer to heart. Few lyricists have presented their scars as compellingly as Matt Beringer; a collection of these mistakes seems utmost fitting for an evening spent alone.