High Violet, the new full-length record by the National, is a nervy, melodic, explosive and beautiful set of songs that find the band at the height of their collaborative powers. The music is wide-ranging in its moods, by turns intimate and rough, expansive and spare, full of stark angles and atmosphere. Berninger's singing wild, half-broken, sly evokes a feeling of being haunted, by love, by paranoia, by something just out of reach. High Violet may be The National's most thematically twisted record to date but it somehow also manages to be their most infectious and immediate.
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.
Long before No Doubt brought back ska and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy resurrected swing, Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry were making music that recalled an earlier time. How early? Try the Renaissance. Everything old–really old–is new again on Aion, the band's fifth and arguably finest album.