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When ‘Terrible Love’ opens The National’s newest album ‘High Violet’, you might catch yourself checking your speakers to make sure there are no loose wires. The first 15 seconds are pure lo-fi fuzz, an airy ode to My Bloody Valentine. But then Matt Berninger starts his instantly identifiable drone, which pierces the static like a sheet of water. What began as a gentle wake up slowly builds until the the reverb fills the room and Berninger repeats over and over “It takes an ocean not to break” and the band hits a layered, uplifting crescendo that would make Arcade Fire smile. It’s a powerful track one, and it’s only a teaser of what is already the best album of the year.

It still sounds like The National, but they’ve never sounded this awake. Berninger, always understated, sometimes monotone, delivers soulful, literate, stream of consciousness thoughts in a delicate baritone that sounds like he might splinter apart if pushed too far. But he keeps pushing this time out, finding a range to match his soaring emotions. Sometimes it’s an awkward stutter like on ‘Afraid of Everyone’ where he sounds like a record jumping grooves ‘Your voice is swallowing my soul-soul-soul’. It turns to pure silk on ‘Sorrow’ where the band plays a sparkling angelic driving beat as he half whispers, as if he might be ashamed to admit it, that ‘I don’t want to get over you’. And on ‘England’ it becomes an operatic, layered projecting chorus. Even if you can’t fully decipher the words or the meaning behind the lyrics (’cause all the silver girls gave us black dreams/leave the silver city/to all the silver girls/everything means everything/I was afraid I’d eat your brains /Cause I’m evil’ on ‘Conversation 16’) you can gather connotation from how he sings. Like The Cocteau Twins or The Talking Heads, the meaning of these songs does not come through a concrete narrative, but through a texture of words, sounds and inflection.

The band displays a similar broadening range, moving between the gentle chamber indie-folk of ‘Runaway’ to the slow burning storm of ‘England’ to the towering anthem of ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’. Everything sounds thickly layered, with horns and strings washing through and choruses of backing vocals adding further depth. It’s a wall of sound, but it never sounds muddy. Even the lo-fi fuzz on tracks like ‘Terrible Love’ comes gently and feels comforting. Indie rock likes to sound pretty, but it rarely hits the highs that ‘High Violet’ reaches on every other track.

‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ deserves special mention. The first single from the album, it’s also the first song by The National that actually deserves to be released as such. For a band that willfully kept their heads down and played to the critics, ‘Bloodbuzz’ sounds like a wake up call. The drum beats burst out of the gate, hurtling the song into a lush, spiraling wall of sound and the best use of piano in rock and roll since Pink Floyd’s ‘Us and Them’. It’s an epic road trip of a song, one that will raise hairs on your arms and make your chest hurt with the staggering beauty of it all. As it climaxes in a final rush of insistent pounding tides of sound, you’ll find yourself looking for the repeat button. ‘Bloodbuzz’ is easily one of the best songs of the decade.

Jellyfish!!!

It’s not a secret that I unabashedly love Floater.  They won’t top any critics top 1o lists or appeal to the Portland hipster crowd that dotes on the Decemberists and The Shins, but Floater is doing something right. Over 17 years, they’ve never signed a major record deal, never received significant radio play, been the subject of frequent ridicule in local publications, had minimal promotional abilities  and they can still pack the Northwest’s largest dedicated music venues. Their secret lies in the live show, combining metal, psychedelia, and old fashioned rock and roll.  It’s exhausting, cathartic and the crowds feel like family gatherings of misfits and seekers. You don’t go to a Floater show to forget your troubles, you go to dispel them.

Their newest album ‘Wake’ is their attempt to capture that live energy in the studio. ‘Wake’ is concise, clocking in at about 45 minutes, so there’s scarcely a wasted moment. It maintains a fast pace throughout, packing in 12 tracks that rip by at an exhausting rate. The band has stated that this album is meant for road trips, and they’re right, it sounds best in the car, with a couple friends singing along. And sing along they will, since Floater has a surprise: they’ve gone pop. And therein is the strength and weakness of ‘Wake’.

Pop music is easily accessible. You’ll find yourself shouting the choruses on ‘Concentrate’ and ‘Let It Go’ before the song has finished playing for the first time. But pop music is also simple and frequently shallow, and so songs like ‘Wondering’ and ‘You Taught Me’ lack the emotional depth that I’ve come to associate with the piercing, sometimes devastating songs in their catalog. The verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus pattern happens far too often and so many songs blend together.

Things open with a bang on ‘Concentrate’, a crystal clear ethereal guitar that sounds like you just stumbled on a late era Pink Floyd b-side. But in trademark Floater fashion, the song quickly shifts and veers into a  U2 War-era anthem, with guitarist Dave delivering a glorious outro solo and singer Rob’s impassioned whoa-oh-ohs. It’s a perfect first track that announces: turn it up, and get moving.

But things bog down over the next few songs, as the pop sound gives in to simple riffs and trite lyrics. You can’t fault the band for trying, since the energy never flags for a moment, only the quality of songwriting. ‘Wondering’ is barely over 2 minutes, and hits a low (or  high) point of pop accessibility.

Midway through the album is ‘The Simplest Way of Life’, the crowning track of ‘Wake’. It’s heavy, ominous sounding and the lyrics are sharp and delivered in a low rumble of a whisper giving way to the stunning chorus. It’s a masterful, mercurially shifting track and also marks as one of the sexiest songs they’ve ever recorded. Seriously, try dancing with your significant other to this one. It’s HOT.

‘White Dress’ radically shifts the tone, as the album pauses for a slow burn. For a moment, Floater drops the pop aspirations and returns to the heartbreaking, sometimes shocking songwriting of the past. “She looked so still/ When she quietly said/ ‘Please take my life'” will send shivers up your spine.

The rest of album sticks to the formula. ‘Enough’ brings back some grinding psychedelia and ‘Killing Time’ ends with a mosh pit frenzy. The album closes on another high point with ‘Let It Go’. The pop aspirations finally synthesize perfectly as the Floaterized soaring rock and roll melds into something giddy and upbeat, with guitar solos and sing along refrain matching the tone of the song.

Your opinion of ‘Wake’ will probably depend on your opinion of Floater in general. If you like their recent trend toward 80’s anthemic rock and roll, ‘Wake’ is a natural progression. If your love for Floater stopped with the grinding snarl of  ‘Cinema’, then ‘Wake’ will seem like a desperate ploy to sellout. If you’re new to Floater, then give it a listen. It’s exhilarating and proves that after 17 years, they’ve maintained a commitment to expanding their sound and keeping the crowd surging.

To hear tracks from ‘Wake’, go to http://floater.com/. The first 3 songs in the music player that pops up are all from the new album.