Playing with Metaphors
The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner talk about how
quirky direction from vocalist Matt Berninger, classical-guitar
icon Benjamin Verdery, and vintage Jaguars and Sheratons
figure into their deceptively simple tapestries of sound.
BY ADAM PERLMUTTER
The National (left to right): Guitarist Bryce Dessner, bassist Scott Devendorf, vocalist Matt Berninger, drummer Bryan Devendorf, and guitarist Aaron Dessner. Photo by Keith Klenowski
Aaron and Bryce Dessner, identical-twin instrumentalists in the National, are not guitar heroes in the conventional sense. On
High Violet, the band’s fifth full-length album—which was on many
music reviewers’ best-of-the-year lists for 2010—you won’t find any
pyrotechnical fretwork. What you will hear woven throughout the 11
songs’ complex instrumentation—which includes acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums, strings (violins, viola, and cello) and horns
(trombone, trumpet, and saxophone), accordion, piano, and ethereal
background vocals—is a subtler kind of virtuosity. The Dessners’
brand of virtuosity revolves around subversive polyrhythms, mastery
of tonal colors and texture, and their ability to make even the most
shopworn of musical structures sound compellingly new.
At the moment, the National—whose admirers include Bruce
Springsteen and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe—is one of rock’s most
lionized bands. But when the Dessners, bassist Scott Devendorf,
drummer Bryan Devendorf (Scott’s brother), and singer Matt
Berninger formed the band in Ohio in the late ’90s and then
converged on New York, they toiled for years in semi-obscurity.
It wasn’t until the Brooklyn-based band released its third album,
2005’s Alligator, that a buzz began to develop.