CD reviews: The National, Widespread Panic, David Cross, Broken Social Scene - Reverb

CD reviews: The National, Widespread Panic, David Cross, Broken Social Scene

The National, “High Violet” (4AD)

If you’ve managed to avoid the slobber-fest surrounding the National’s new album, you’ll probably want to skip this review. Then again, if you’re dying to know what all the high-pitched fuss is about, read on.

The decidedly dour, restrained “High Violet” — this Brooklyn band’s fifth and most polished full-length — has been virtually inescapable in music circles the past couple of months, and now the mainstream is starting to catch on, with the disc debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 a couple weeks back.

That’s a big step forward for an indie rock band usually associated with sad, dark lyrics and a sound that inspires ridiculous critical appraisals like “Leonard Cohen-meets-Guided by Voices” (my own words). Really, singer-lyricist Matt Berninger is a polarizing figure — a sensitive, literary type to some and a bland, self-obsessed crybaby to others. Depending on your love of (or tolerance for) patient, timeless narratives and navel-gazing sentiments, he could be both.

Unlike on past breakthrough albums “Alligator” and “Boxer,” Berninger doesn’t do much to obscure his suffocating paranoia. Anyone from the Midwest will be able to relate to the bittersweet “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” a “you can never go home again” urban hymn that saddles itself to a propulsive post-punk drumbeat. (Only would someone from a rust-belt burgh like Cincinnati feel so simultaneously nostalgic and weird about his past).

If you’ve been listening to the National for a few years now, some of the arrangements can feel more than a little rote. But if you’re able to tap into the pensive wavelength of “Conversation 16” (a midnight road-trip soundtrack, if ever there was one) or the slow-burning “Anyone’s Ghost,” you’ll be rewarded with some of the smartest, most poetic music being made today. – John Wenzel

Widespread Panic, “Dirty Side Down” (ATO)

Widespread Panic is more than just a jam band. At least that’s what the group is trying to get across with its latest full-length, “Dirty Side Down,” in stores today.

It seems to be a popular trend — jam bands releasing ambitiously sprawling records with media interviews insisting they’re “more than just a jam band.” And we get it, we really do. Jam bands, while incredibly popular in the live arena — Panic plays three nights at Red Rocks on June 25-27 — still struggle selling CDs.

To their credit, Panic give blues-rock fans some tight jams here, sometimes adding a potent psych-rock riff (the CD-opening “Saint Ex”) and other times eschewing expectations with a quick-and-jittery instrumental ditty (“St. Louis,” which clocks in at less than 3 minutes).

Singer John Bell’s love of the blues is obvious, and at times he sounds like Coloradan Todd Park Mohr (Big Head Todd & the Monsters) with his throaty call. Fans of Mohr’s music will likely find kinship in these songs, even if the two bands’ live shows couldn’t be more different. – Ricardo Baca

David Cross, “Bigger and Blackerer” (Sub Pop)

Best known as a character actor and sketch comedian in critically-acclaimed TV shows and films such as “Mr. Show,” “Arrested Development” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” David Cross is also an infrequent stand-up whose unapologetic rants and wickedly sharp observations have netted him a rabid, Bill Hicks-style following.

And why shouldn’t they? Cross is a reliable firebrand who never suffers fools, and his stand-up is a furnace blast of creativity when he allows himself to gain momentum. He’s also a hero to the underground for his groundbreaking rock club tours for Sub Pop in the early 2000s, which helped popularize the notion of comedy-outside-the-comedy club.

On his third album (and second DVD) for Seattle indie label Sub Pop, Cross expands his arsenal of agreeably harsh critiques covering everything from mindless TV and drug addicts to religion, homophobia and political jingoism. And as with his post-9/11 material, he’s still saying a lot of things many of us are too complacent to say ourselves.

The title, a goof on Chris Rock’s 1999 album “Bigger & Blacker,” has nothing to do with the album itself, and some of the visual gags are a lost on the audio-only version. It’s a wide net to cast, and Cross is clearly more concerned with the integrity of his ideas than perfectly smooth execution. Fortunately, that makes the differences between the CD and DVD (two slightly different shows with slightly different material) a goldmine for comedy nerds.

But it also puts him at a loss when compared with the laser-honed performance styles of peers like Patton Oswalt or Paul F. Tompkins — though Cross would probably be the first to admit this. It may help his material feel conversational and fresh, even when you’ve heard it before (and many of Denver’s indie/alt-comedy fans likely have if they saw him at the Paramount Theatre in October), but after three albums of this, Cross probably isn’t converting a whole lot of naysayers.

Is it just more of the same from this fearless, Grammy-nominated stand-up? Yes — and that’s a beautiful thing. – John Wenzel

Broken Social Scene “Forgiveness Rock Record” (Arts and Crafts)

After a five-year layoff, Canadian indie collective Broken Social Scene picks up more or less where they left off on latest album “Forgiveness Rock Record.” The time off has served the band well as they’ve created an album that’s fresh but pleasantly familiar.

What separates this from past albums is the straightforward approach. The songs sound tighter and more refined; they connect, with Broken Social Scene sounding more like a band than a loose collective of musicians. No need to fear, though, as the random moments of noise, a signature of their past work, are still present — just more controlled and calculated.

Evidence of this tighter sound is present on the track “Art House Director,” a highlight featuring multitudes of instruments and noises arranged in a perfectly catchy fashion. The album features a number of other great tracks, but like its predecessors, is best when listened to all the way through as the tracks build off one another.

Variety is another element that this album has going for it: For this record they list nine band members, 13 additional members and nine guests, totaling 31 musicians (and yes, indie darling Leslie Feist is back). It works well as each track features different performers.

The band rewards the listener by including 14 tracks at a time when 10-track albums are king. “Forgiveness Rock Record” clocks in a few minutes shy of the one hour mark without wasting a moment. – Greg Stieber

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John Wenzel is the co-editor of Reverb, editor of the Get Real Denver blog and an A&E reporter for The Denver Post. His book “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” was recently published by Speck Press. He also maintains a Twitter feed of random song titles.

Ricardo Baca is the founder and co-editor of Reverb and an award-winning critic and journalist at The Denver Post. He is also the executive director of the Underground Music Showcase, Colorado’s premier indie music festival. Follow his whimsies at Twitter, his live music habit at Gigbot and his iTunes addictions at Last.fm.

Greg Stieber is a Denver freelance writer and regular contributor to Reverb.