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The first thing that should clue you into The National's musical superiority is the simple fact that they're more successful in Europe than they are in their U.S. home. It's what led the Brooklyn quintet to sign with Beggars Banquet after two albums and an EP on their own, and it's what's forced American audiences to take notice. Even so, though, on their latest headlining tour they're running second behind their opening act – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – proving it's still youth before beauty in the home of the free, brave and endlessly trendy.

However, in his mid-30s, singer Matt Berninger takes it all in stride. "We are doing this full-time," he says after a pause. "Whether or not we're able to is a little difficult to gauge."

The National specializes in a musical drama that's increasingly difficult to categorize. Courtesy of Berninger's crooning baritone and their modest orchestral tones (provided by perennial guest violinist Padma Newsome), The National can sound like a stripped-down Tindersticks one minute, only to ratchet up the distortion and reverb the next to secure that weightless Echo & the Bunnymen feeling. It's something Berninger has learned to accept about his group and uses as a great strength on their latest release, Alligator.

"We're trying different stuff all the time and none of us had a vision of 'Let's do this kind of thing.' So it keeps shifting around and it surprises ourselves and keeps up interested."

Though all five members hail from Cincinnati, Ohio, they hooked up as a band in Brooklyn five-plus years ago, getting together casually and writing and recording songs for fun. Touring only became necessary once it became apparent that if they ever wished to sell their self-pressed CDs they would have to bring it to the people. "We've been told we're this 'slow-building' band," laughs Berninger. "Our records are slow burners, but it does feel as if the hard work is starting to pay off."

Just as their studio recordings follow no predictable path, their live performances are also open to interpretation. "Most of them are faster," admits Berninger. "I think that's a fact of nerves and adrenaline and booze. Our shows are much more reckless than it might sound like on the record. 'Fiery' has been used. I guess that's the result of being in bars every night and being terrified."

The National
with Portastatic, John Vanderslice

Sunday, Oct. 23
The Social

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