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THE NATIONAL:: Boxer (Album Review)

The chamber rock quintet the National broke through in 2005 with “Alligator,” a moody album that sounded more than a little like the Willard Grant Conspiracy gone post- punk. The band earned plaudits for mixing disparate styles and avoiding the “woe is me” shoe-gazer tar pit. Eager to replicate that success, the National hews too closely to established formula on “Boxer,” content to revisit previously explored territory without expanding its sound.

Granted, “Boxer” is a big-sounding record, laden with strings, horns, piano, guitar and singer Matt Berninger’s rich voice, each element interlocking with jigsaw precision and buffed to a high black sheen. And given the tenor of the times, Berninger’s worldview is appropriately gloomy – when he sings “we’re half-awake in a fake empire” on the opener, “Fake Empire,” he could be reciting America’s new letterhead-ready slogan – but its effectiveness is weakened when the gloom spreads over of a dozen songs. The record’s brighter spots (“Apartment Story” and “Green Gloves,” which recall the band’s pre-“Alligator” Americana- influenced work) strike a better balance between gloomy and, er, less gloomy. Still, night-black, painstakingly crafted and bloodless, “Boxer” is musical obsidian.
(STEPHEN HAAG- CT)