The National, The Broken West
The El Rey Theatre, June 26
At about 20 minutes to stage time, the main floor of the El Rey resembled a college quad: Older-looking professor types, a few in suits and ties, stood around while 20-something freshmen and mid-30s grad students sat here and there on the steps, chatting or text messaging. There were lots of jeans and T-shirt-under-blazer ensembles. All that were missing were the backpacks and books. The room felt remarkably empty for a sold-out show, but by the time our local boys the Broken West took the stage, the crowd had filled out as fast as Lindsay Lohan.
It’s impossible not to move your body to the sun-dappled poppy tunes of the Broken West, arguably the best new band to come out of the Echo Park/Silver Lake scene since the Silversun Pickups. The tunes on their new album — I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On (Merge), are as catchy as a staph infection. (“Down in the Valley,” sifted through a ’60s pop-rock filter with harmonies worthy of the Beach Boys and the Byrds, is a favorite.) And then there’s the widely made Big Star comparison. Lead singer Ross Flournoy is the meat and potatoes of the group, powerful in both voice and stature, and he provided the most entertaining flourishes live. The rest of the band looked a little stiff — either they were superstoked to be there and taking it all in, or nervous. “Normally, I wear a bathrobe and sit on a stool,” Flournoy said between sips of his Heineken — but he wanted to look good for his hometown. The band has worked its way through the L.A. club ranks, playing the Echo, free shows at Silverlake Lounge, and now the El Rey. I was still humming their tune “Brass Ring” when the National took the stage nearly a half hour later.
And if the Broken West have to emerge from under the weight of a Big Star comparison, they should try being the National: Mere mention of the Brooklyn band’s name in certain circles draws exasperated sighs of “Joy Division.” But the National isn’t all Joy Division all the time, like, say, Interpol: The band manage to bring something else to the table, something truly their own. Take “Fake Empire,” off their latest, Boxer (Beggars Banquet), a wistful tune that calls to mind Tom Waits and even shades of U2, but ultimately invents a color not found in the Crayola box of standard band comparisons. And, goddamn, they were fierce live, magnetic even, when singer Matt Berninger pulled a Jim Morrison, turning his back to us repeatedly throughout the set. Berninger’s voice is more far reaching in real time, buzzing softly, then striking out like a tesla coil. Drummer Bryan Devendorf was so tight, to quote the girl next to me, “it was retarded.” Then there’s the dude who plays the violin on tour, but isn’t named on their Web site: He freaks out on his violin. Seriously, he assaults it with the ferocity of a caged animal. The crowd was caught up in the band’s tales of growing up, getting hurt and growing tired of crisp white shirts and corporate ladders. It was all true: In an archetypal tale of rock & roll genesis, the band were formed after the dot-com boom went bust and most of the members lost their jobs. The National are and were fueled on fuck-it-all energy. And so the suit-and-tired and the angry youth raised their fists in unison, shouting back the lyrics of seemingly everyone’s new favorite band. “Your mind is racing like a pro/now oh my god it doesn’t mean a lot to you/one time you were a glowing young ruffian/oh my god it was a million years ago.”