The National have worn a lot of hats since their 2001 debut, but they’ve never been able to shake the rural, book-smart, quiet malevolence of the Midwest. The Brooklyn-groomed, Ohio-bred indie rock quintet’s fifth full-length album navigates that lonely dirt road where swagger meets desperation like a seasoned tour guide, and while it may take a few songs to get going, there are treasures to be found for patient passengers. The National's profile rose considerably after 2007’s critically acclaimed The Boxer, and they have used that capital to craft a flawed gem of a record that highlights their strengths and weaknesses with copious amounts of red ink.
Upon first spin, Trouble Will Find Me, the warm, wistful, and weary sixth long-player from The National, sounds a lot like 2010's warm, wistful, and weary High Violet, but where the former was built on a foundation of suburban despondency and casual, middle class self-destruction (and skillfully juggled melodrama and dark comedy), the latter feels mired in regret, seeking refuge in the arms of old friends and lost lovers, sounding for all the world like a single cube of ice lazily swirling about a recently drained tumbler of single malt scotch, a notion best intoned on early album standout "Demons," which casually announces "I am secretly in love with everyone I grew up with."
Laconic California indie minstrel M. Ward's fifth offering is a thrift shop photo album filled with histories that may or may not have been, dust bowl carnival rides, and slices of sunlit Western Americana so thick that you need a broom to sweep up the bits that fall off of the knife. Ward makes records that sound like he just wandered in off the street with a few friends and hit the record button, but what would feel lazy and unfocused in less confident hands comes off like a tutorial in old-school songwriting and performance that hearkens back to the days of Hank Williams and Leadbelly if they had had access to a modern-day studio.
It's not surprising that David Byrne and St. Vincent's Annie Clark were drawn to work together. While they're hardly sound-alikes, they are both keen but somewhat detached observers of the human condition who make music that's equally cerebral and passionate. However, it is somewhat surprising to learn that they created their collaboration Love This Giant largely online, meeting in the studio together with their team of musicians and producers a handful of times during the album's three-year gestation period, because they're on such a harmonious wavelength throughout it. Though the album's brass-driven sound suggests Byrne's post-Talking Heads work more than St. Vincent's guitar acrobatics (Clark fans may be disappointed that her playing is relegated to the sidelines here, albeit artfully so), it was actually Clark's idea to write these songs for a brass band when the project began as a handful of songs the duo was going to perform in a bookstore.
Lisa Gerrard was so indelibly and obviously a part of what made Dead Can Dance what it is that it's little wonder that The Mirror Pool feels essentially like a continuation of that band's haunting, vast atmospheres. Without Brendan Perry's deep, rolling voice as a contrast, Gerrard's sky-sweeping abilities transform the entire recording into a truly mystical experience. The use of Australia's Victorian Philharmonic Orchestra on many tracks continues the tradition of strong arrangements in Gerrard's work, thanks to the abilities of John Bonnar, who conducts as well as performs at other points.