Off the record: Week of May 11, 2007

The National, Battles, Handsome Furs, and Deerhunter
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  May 9, 2007
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SUBTERRANEAN CALCULATIONS: Battles

THE NATIONAL | BOXER | Beggars Banquet
3 stars

The much-anticipated follow-up to 2005’s Alligator, Boxer exudes very little of the show-boating panache that made its predecessor a surprise breakthrough. Instead, vocalist Matt Berninger trades in those absurdist proclamations (“I’m a perfect piece of ass”) for more lyrical working-class musings (“Everything I love gets lost in the drawers”), and lays them on a foundation of uncharacteristically dark and elegant post-punk rhythms. Cushioned by lush string and piano arrangements, Berninger moans like the gloomy kid brother of Morrissey, all weary sarcasm and pessimistic humility. Boxer is The National’s least enthusiastic release, but the slow burn works in the band’s favor; the album’s cohesion reveals a singular, self-perpetuating momentum that evokes the post-grad/pre-adulthood malaise that Berninger’s lyrics portray. (Available May 22)

BATTLES | MIRRORED | Warp
3.5 STARS

The excellent video for Battles’ “Atlas” shows the band floating through space in a rotating, half-mirrored half-glass cube. The camera catches the mirrors at odd angles, making the Brooklyn four-piece look like a small army. It’s a fitting visual motif for these overlords of underground math-rock, the limited possibilities of genre obliterated by endless refractions and angular shifts. The band’s debut LP breaks the mold of their exhausting instrumental EPs; helium-huffing vocals (check the Modest Mouse-on-amphetamines “Ddiamondd,” so manic it’s over before you’ve absorbed a word) add the pathos necessary to stretch the album into a hot-wired, 50+ minute monster. Totally enamored with its cartoonish sense of spectacle, Mirrored plays like an impossibly taut hipster remix of an air strike from Star Wars. (Available May 22)

HANDSOME FURS | PLAGUE PARK | Sub Pop
3 STARS

The Bruce Springsteen to Spencer Krug’s David Bowie, Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner always seemed the humble workhorse of the group, sobering anchor to Krug’s restless imagination. Plague Park, the debut from Boeckner’s new side project (with fiancée Alexei Perry) Handsome Furs, confirms this sentiment but sheds light on how vital his presence was to Wolf Parade’s tremendous debut. Boeckner sings of doomed, collapsing cities and their doomed, apathetic denizens in nearly hopeless terms, but the eponymous pleas of “Sing! Captain” and his blissful guitar licks slyly subvert abject fatalism. Perry’s synth/drum machine compositions sometimes overreach (it takes Boeckner’s most Springsteenian moment to salvage “Dead + Rural”‘s ugly French techno pulse), but at its best Handsome Furs works for the disaffected like the Postal Service works for the sentimental: it feels like a new way to hope.

Available May 22

DEERHUNTER | FLUORESCENT GREY EP | Kranky
3.5 STARS

Released just three months after their breakout Cryptograms LP, Fluorescent Grey is a fierce coda to a frustrating album. While Cryptograms isolated the psych-rock quintet’s instrumental jams and hyper-sensory songwriting into an alternately brilliant and maddening two-sided concept album, this EP distills the band’s cyptic and violent impulses into a erotic, propulsive whole. The Sonic Youth comparisons now make perfect sense: Bradford Cox’s androgynous vocals convey both the psychosexual danger of Kim Gordon (“Why do I dream so often of his body/When his body will decay?”) and the jaded punk of Thurston Moore, and every abstraction adds evocative thrust to the drugged-out miasma that is Deerhunter’s essence. (Available now)

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