This week, NPR’s First Listen program is sharing a streaming preview of Ayhem,a collaboration between Kronos Quartet and Bryce Dessner of the National. Out via Anti Records on November 5th, the recording is Dessner’s first full length album of concert works. That said, Dessner is no newbie to writing for classical instruments; he has composed for various contemporary ensembles. In 2011, I interviewed him about his part in American Composers Orchestra’s SONiC Festival. A recording of the resulting piece, St. Carolyn by the Sea, is slated for release soon on DG.
For their fifth LP, the Nationalhasn’t sought to break musical barriers per se. And in this case, that’s certainly not a bad thing; it depicts a group that is hitting its stride and trusting its sound rather than one that has run out of ideas. Indeed, High Violet is the band’s most consistently engaging release to date. The one area in which one sees a difference to their approach is a subtle yet marked augmentation of the band’s instrumental palette. There is even a tie-in to the ‘indie classical’ genre we’ve been discussing so much here. A number of the cuts feature classical instruments and both Doveman and Nico Muhly have lent their arranging talents to the proceedings. The result never feels over-scored, and the backing tracks provide a sense of urgency and drama that often serves as a counterweight for Matt Berninger’s vocals.
The buzz around the record has served to break down some barriers. After several leaks of sonically compromised MP3s of album tracks by naughty web denizens, the band decided to let more legitimate outlets stream the album for free, so that fans and new listeners alike could hear their work in an unadulterated form. It was the first recording ever to be streamed in its entirety from the New York Times’ website. NPR has become a big supporter of indie music with its own “sneak previews” and it countered with a stream and concurrent hyping in advance of High Violet’s release date. It appears that this multifaceted marketing approach has yielded dividends for the band; High Violet debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200.