Using a 1963 Fender Jaguar, Bryce Dessner adds some punk angst to the National’s multi-instrumental mélange. Photo by Keith Klenowski
Just as important to the National’s complex, deceptively simple sound are drummer Bryan Devendorf ’s propulsive rhythms—which he augments with subtle mallet taps and clever use of various handheld percussion instruments—Scott Devendorf ’s nimble bass work, and Berninger’s baritone. But that’s just half the equation: While said vocals are delivered in a manner that’s melancholy as often as it’s nonchalant, the lyrics—which are written with the occasional input of Berninger’s wife, Carin Besser, a former fiction editor atThe New Yorker Magazine—are unfailingly wry and obtuse. Lines like “I was afraid / I’d eat your brains / ’cause I am evil” (“Conversation 16”) and “I defend my family / with my orange umbrella / I’m afraid of everyone” (“Afraid of Everyone”) are as likely to make you smile or rewind and say, “Did he just say what I think he said?” as they are to make you choke up a little.

Then there are the lush and imaginative orchestrations that Bryce writes, sometimes with the assistance of former Yale associates and composers/instrumentalists Padma Newsome (with whom he also plays in the adventurous chamber ensemble Clogs) and Nico Muhly. The gentle trio of French horn, trombone, and cello on “Runaway,” and the rumbling bass clarinet on “Conversation 16” are examples of the instrumental flourishes that add such uncommon depth and detail to the music. “My arrangements tend to be very supportive and kind of interior,” says Bryce. “There’s something about Matt’s voice . . . orchestration can help glue it to the music, while bringing out overtones that you might not normally hear.”

In their finished states, the songs on
High Violetare at once raw and refined, and they wend their way into your mind on multiple levels. Since the music is so straightforward and diatonic, it’s accessible to a wide audience of casual listeners unaware of some of the sophisticated devices at work. At the same time, a conservatory geek can admire the appropriation of contemporary classical sounds and techniques, as well as the depth of the band’s musicality. In other words, as it turns out, Aaron and Bryce Dessner may just be the thinking man’s guitar heroes.

The National’s Gearbox

Assorted 6- and 12-string semi-hollowbodies by Reuben Cox, 1979 Epiphone Sheraton, 1963 Fender Jaguar, 1977 Fender Telecaster, 1970 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe, early ’70s Gibson SG, two 1958 Silvertone semi-hollowbodies, 1965 Guild M-20, 1996 Jeremy Locke classical, 1991 Greg Smallman classical, 1969 and 1973 Fender Precision basses, 1972 Fender Telecaster bass

Fender Bassman, blackface Fender Super Reverb, 1970s Fender Twin Reverb, Fender ’65 Twin Reverb reissue, Penn Pennalizer 3x10 and 4x10 combos

Boss DD-5 Digital Delay, Boss TR-2 Tremolo, Crowther Hot Cake, Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Reverb, Electro-Harmonix POG Polyphonic Octave Generator, Ibanez Tube Screamer, Klon Centaur, Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, Pro Co RAT, Heet Sound EBow

Strings and Picks
D’Addario EXL115 sets for most electrics, D’Addario EXL140 sets for the Fender Jaguar, D’Addario EJ40 Silk & Steel (acoustics), Dunlop .75 mm Tortex (Aaron), Dunlop .88 mm Tortex (Bryce)

Left: Aaron Dessner’s 1979 Epiphone Sheraton has a trapeze tailpiece with drastically different string lengths for the top and bottom three strings. He often picks behind the bridge for other-worldly sounds. Photo by Keith Klenowski
Right: Bryce Dessner’s naturally relic’d 1963 Fender Jaguar. Photo by Keith Klenowski