5.6

The National: A Skin, A Night/The Virginia EP

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The National: <em>A Skin, A Night/The Virginia EP</em>

Compelling new music balances flawed film

The National is an intensely necessary band right now. Pop has, in fact, begun to eat itself, with far too many artists to retain in our all-too-brief memory loops. The National seeks to retrain us in the art of listening. Their albums are beautiful, elaborate slow-growers, articulating uncertainty and angst with a coldly wistful humor. They operate with a kind of post-rock remove—they’re slightly scruffy guys who rarely, if ever, call attention to themselves outside the confines of the stage. Making themselves the subjects of a film, then, is a dangerous scramble to the edge of a limb. For a band with music that’s often described as “cinematic,” there’s a risk that replacing the visions listeners have fabricated in their own imaginations with images mandated by the band could be an intrusive, aggressive and unwelcome gesture.

Perhaps the best thing about A Skin, A Night—in light of all The National have already built—is that it’s harmless. Using actual songs quite sparingly, it instead interacts with The National largely through its impressionistic documentation of the band’s writing and recording of Boxer. For the album’s fans, the window into the uncertainty and sprawl of the process actually enhances the wonder of the finished product. That said, the film struggles to find a true point of view. Its interaction with the band members feels haphazard and—aside from a brief, poignant interaction with Matt Berninger discussing stage fright—it generally portrays the musicians as mute, sullen and listless. While its failure to explore them more deeply preserves their valued anonymity, it also calls into question the film’s mission. When the cameras are away from the band, they’re generally reeling in soft focus across a random array of architectural details or cityscapes. The vibe is overwhelmingly one of pretentious student filmmaking, and the ponderous pace and heavy-handed effects make it a mostly boring and draining 62 minutes. The closest the film comes to capturing something special is in its more lyrical depiction of the band onstage wringing out the last part of “About Today,” the full audio of which is thankfully included on the accompanying Virginia EP disc.

As gifts to the fans go, the disc is a welcome if eclectic assortment. A ?Daytrotter version of “Lucky You” and a subtle, lyrical cover of Springsteen’s ?“Mansion On The Hill” are flattering samples of the band’s concert sound, while “Blank Slate” and a demo version of “Tall Saint” are welcome additions to the canon. Virginia also includes an epic live take of “About Today.” After the film’s glance at the taxing and expansive process of The National’s album-making, a seemingly tossed-together collection of odds ’n’ sods is actually a refreshingly relaxed experience, with the pressure off for both the listener and, presumably, the band. Exciting, too, is the fact that the material they’ve chosen to shelve is so good. A strong gathering of songs in its own right, the The Virginia EP is perhaps reason enough to buy the package, even if the film it accompanies largely misses the mark.

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