Tag Archives: High Violet

Top 10 Songs of 2013: #3 – “Don’t Swallow the Cap” by The National

26 Dec

The National

In 2010 The National appeared on the Music Court’s incipient end-of-the-year countdown. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” reached the eight spot, and, three years ago on Dec. 22 I wrote the following about the song:

When the lyric, voice and instrumentation all join together to struggle with the same concept that the song represents, well, that demonstrates musical experience and intelligence, two things that The National has a lot of.

“Bloodbuzz Ohio” probably deserved a higher placement on the 2010 list. I’m making up for that now. “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” a single off of the National’s sixth studio album Trouble Will Find Me (May 17, 2013), is a perfect demonstration of the above quotation. The new album, which was recorded in New York (north of NYC), debuted at #3 on the US Billboard 200, the same spot as the band’s 2010 release High Violet. While both releases are similar in content and ratings, the new album represents an expected maturation for the band, and this musical efficacy is best displayed in “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” the #3 song on the Music Court’s 2013 list.

One of the rare negative reviews of Trouble Will Find Me stated that the music seemed emotionally dry. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, the melancholic baritone of Matt Berninger is even more saturated with driving, lachrymose rhythms and candid, painful lyrics. It is easy to be deceived, though, because it does seem that the musicians in the National are finally comfortable with who they are. Comfort does often lead to complacency, but for the National it has led to newfound puissance.

While Berninger’s distinctive baritone absorbs the vast majority of the National’s praise, it is essential to point out the two sets of brothers who lay the groove and hold down the musical fort with adroitness. Aaron and Bryce Dessner, who also produced the album, take care of the guitar and airy keyboard that provide the complement to Berninger’s somber vocal. Scott Devendorf helps drive the rhythm forward with an effective bass guitar, and his brother Bryan is responsible for the persistent drumbeat. For the first 30 seconds of “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” the band is in full force. Perhaps most impressive in the song’s inception are the effervescent keyboard sounds that are high-pitched (relatively) and alien-like. The sounds set an eldritch scene, one that Berninger snugly fits into when he opens his mouth.

“Don’t Swallow the Cap” is yet another quintessential lugubrious lyric that features such gems as “I have only two emotions, Careful fear and dead devotion” and “Don’t think anybody I know is awake.” It’s a song about loss and grieving, and Berninger’s croon glides throughout the song like a figure skater, effortlessly manipulating the thin ice. Excellent song by an excellent band.

The Best Songs of 2010: #8: “Bloodbuzz Ohio” by The National

22 Dec

I'm getting something

I shook the 8-ball and out of the mysterious liquid realm came a suggestion to pick “Bloodbuzz Ohio” by The National as the eighth song on our Top 11 list. All hail the mighty 8-ball. Putting aside my idolatry for the black circle of broad responses, I believe the 8-ball made the correct choice. Is it odd that I had previously written “Bloodbuzz Ohio” in as the number eight song of the year?

Song: “Bloodbuzz Ohio”

Band: The National

When The National released High Violet in May of 2010 something clicked with the national public. Prior to its release, this 11-year-old Indie rock band, led by baritone Matt Berninger, had released four previous albums. Boxer, released in 2007, charted highest in Finland, reaching the 23rd spot. The National swam in the sea of under appreciation for talented bands releasing good material. But, after High Violet hit, led by an excellent full-album performance highlighted by the song we are featuring today, people started taking notice. The song charted practically everywhere, reaching the #3 spot in the United States (where The National only hit #68 with Boxer). To this date, High Violet has sold 400,000 copies worldwide and has gone silver in the UK and gold in Ireland. 11 tracks for an 11 year history. The band finally now gets to experience some deserved recognition.

The National formed in Cincinnati. Berninger’s croon and lyric are the staples that hold the band together. But, the band also consists of two sets of brothers, the Dessners and Devendorfs, who create the band’s wonderful instrumentation. Padma Newsome, from The Clogs, often contributes keyboards and strings (which she does for “Bloodbuzz Ohio” which we will begin to discuss…right now!)

Let me share a brief preface before you settle into the piece. The song is a tenebrous masterpiece, melancholic in voice, video and music. The lyric delves into the topic of traveling back home and it certainly opens a fresh wound that bleeds out slowly onto the listener.

The song is immediately depressing. The charcoal video is paired with Berninger’s gloomy voice, dark but level, and a solemn loneliness that immediately presents itself after the drummed opening. The squirming repetition is almost as uncomfortable as Berninger’s drunkenness throughout the video. But, please don’t take that the wrong way. Songs are occasionally supposed to move you out of your comfort song. If you listen to pure mainstream you never get the opportunity to experience different music. And this is exactly what “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is. It is representative of a band that may be slightly out of your normal listening zone. So expand it and taste something that nears on acerbic and austere, but still maintains a hook and melodic quality that draws you in.

The chorus is exceptional. It is capable of drawing incredible emotion out of you. I go back to repetition but I think this is where the true strength of the song lies. The lyrics are also repetitive. He repeats almost every line twice and maintains a few lyric openings like “I still owe money”  and “I rest my eyes.” Perhaps the best moment comes when the song lifts into harmony and Berninger sings that he is on a “blood buzz.” So, what is a blood buzz?

Like I said above, the song exposes traveling back to Ohio (where he grew up). The “blood” refers to his family, his literal blood. The buzz is that feeling you get when you go home. Notice how after he sings that he is on a “blood buzz” the instrumentation fights with two conflicting musical parts. In the background is a keyboard striking 4-5 high notes, tinged with optimism. But a repetitive brash and scratchy chord attempts to cover up the sweetness. This fight represents Berninger’s lyric and character in the video. When the lyric, video, voice and instrumentation all join together to struggle with the same concept that the song represents, well, that demonstrates musical experience and intelligence, two things that The National has a lot of.

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