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The National

Trouble Will Find Me

[4AD]

∆∆∆½

The success of 2010’s “High Violet” placed significant attention on the National, to the point that the by-then already 10-year-old indie-rock band from Brooklyn was being routinely feted as a new arrival. Ironic, this, but incredibly common in the world of popular music, where a band begins to exist whenever the mainstream bothers to notice it, and not a moment before.

That the National’s often low-key, ruminative, well-orchestrated and sometimes depressing indie-rock made no genuine concessions to the mainstream didn’t seem to matter – this was the band to name-drop in 2011, and so, pressure was significant when it came time to follow up “High Violet.”

No worries, though. Instead of becoming self-conscious and overtly courting a broader audience, the band has instead concentrated on expanding its songwriting vocabulary, deepening its sonic palette, and further perfecting the art of the heart-rending indie-pop song. “Trouble Will Find Me” is a stronger, more cohesive and adventurous set of songs than “High Violet,” all of which place singer Matt Berninger’s elegantly bummed out baritone front and center, while subtle guitar figures, supple keyboard washes, and bubbling-just-below-the-surface grooves weave a spell beneath his narratives. When all of these elements conspire in perfect harmony, as they do most of the time here, the results are striking, deeply moving, and yes, more than a little melancholy.

Take “Fireproof,” for instance. A gorgeous, Radiohead-like arpeggiated guitar figure spins around an unobtrusive rhythmic pulse carried by hand percussion and high-hat, while keys and strings seem to float in and out of the mix. All of this sets up Berninger’s vocal beautifully – his range may be far from vast, but man, does he ever know how to work that range, squeezing abundant emotion from his immaculately turned phrases and suggesting narrative flow even where the imagery remains largely abstract.

This is post-modern rock at its finest – once removed from itself, and yet, somehow so terribly poignant.

Album opener “I Should Live In Salt” works a similarly black seam – this is music saturated in regret and resounding with loss, and yet, its sum total effect on the listener can certainly be uplifting.

There are guests here – most notably, indie darlings St. Vincent (“Humiliation”) and Sharon Van Etten, who lends her whispery beauty to several tunes. “Trouble Will Find Me” does not need star cameos, though. It’s a record that arrives like a preweathered classic, a music at once exotic and familiar even on first listen, and doubly so 10 listens in. This could well be the alternative music album to beat in what’s left of 2013.

Jeff Miers

Metal

Alice in Chains

The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here

[Capitol]

∆∆∆∆

Man, what a great album title.

“The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here,” the banner beneath which the fifth Alice in Chains studio album is released, offers a reference to the belief espoused by a certain faction of the extreme religious right that the “horned one” himself placed the bones of dinosaurs deep in the earth in order to confuse mankind about the true nature of creation and the age of the planet.

Which, as nut-case theories go, is only a few shades more loony than the idea that Alice in Chains might rise to the height of its former glory some 10 years after the death of its iconic frontman Layne Staley.

I’m pretty sure that dinosaur bones ended up in the earth after dinosaurs died and left them there. I’m even more comfortable believing that “Devil” is the best thing Alice in Chains has done since the monumental 1992 release “Dirt.”

The reason that this is possible comes in the form of Jerry Cantrell – the brains, the vision, the songwriter and the guitarist in the band since Day One. Cantrell always wrote the music for Alice, and it was his harmony vocal that all too often added magic to the late Staley’s delivery.

Cantrell never lost the plot, even after Staley’s death. The 2009 release “Black Gives Way to Blue” marked the debut of Staley’s replacement, William DuVall, and proved as much.

“Black” revealed DuVall to be remarkably capable of carving his own Staley-like niche in the band’s sound. But “Devil” ups the ante on its predecessor rather significantly – it’s an epic-length collection comprised of mini-epics built around incredibly weighty guitar riffs, eloquent mid-tempo rhythm section rumblings, and those killer hooks and layered harmony vocals that would seem to be Cantrell’s greatest talent among many.

Like “Dirt,” this new effort brings classic metal influences – Black Sabbath, most prominently – to bear on the more bluesy elements of hard rock and the prog-tinged grit of grunge. It manages to be both incredibly heavy and deeply musical, which is a balance few metal bands have been able to strike over the years. Add the genius of producer Nick Raskulinecz – who handled the last two Rush albums, and has worked with Queens of the Stone Age, among many others – and you’ve got an album whose blistering production matches its emotionally and sonically nuanced construction.

Brilliant.

– J.M.

Pop

Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck

The White House Sessions: Live 1962

[Columbia RPM/Legacy]

ΩΩΩ½

It’s sad to think so, but sometimes the deaths of giants wake people up. Not many weeks after Dave Brubeck died last December one day shy of his 92nd birthday, this music was found in the Sony music vaults.

Most of it has never been heard before. Only one of the four Brubeck/Bennett collaborations heard here – their version of “That Old Black Magic” – has appeared on record before and even then on one compilation that’s out-of-print and another one – very obscure – from 2001.

The event was a typical example of the way that the John F. Kennedy White House was transforming forever the relationship between American politics and American culture. It was an end-of-summer party for 1962’s class of young interns in Washington that summer that had to be moved from the White House Rose Garden to the area in front of the Washington Monument to accommodate the crowd.

Both Brubeck and Bennett were riding very high. Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was well on its way to being his biggest song ever. And Brubeck’s “Time Out” – everyone’s favorite Brubeck disc courtesy of “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk” – was converting all manner of latecomers into Brubeck fans. It was, annotater Ted Gioia reminds us, an era where Brubeck preferred to cancel 23 concerts rather than replace his African-American bass player Eugene Wright.

Bennett and Brubeck each performed a first-rate set with their groups (Brubeck, his alto saxophonist Paul Desmond and drummer Joe Morello all at their early ’60s best) and then, so as not to waste the opportunity of being at the same gig, the two got together with Brubeck’s rhythm section on the kind of high-octane standard repertoire that jazz musicians and after-hours occasions are made for: “Lullaby of Broadway,” “Chicago,” “That Old Black Magic” and “There Will Never Be Another You.”

Except for “That Old Black Magic,” none of this has been heard before. The next time they performed together was – get this now – 47 years later at a 2009 Newport Jazz Festival.

What was rescued from the vaults, then, was a moment where two consummate pros prove, with their individual bands, how consummate they are and then, for good measure, jam together in a way the world wouldn’t fully hear again until almost a half century later.

Lucky us.

– Jeff Simon