The National Splits – S/T

If I’ve learned anything from the Neil Sedaka’s Brill Building-era hit “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” it’s that there are always complications when ending a relationship, whether it be personal or professional. For the National Splits’ Mike Downey, his break from indie rock upstarts Wolfie, a band that turned out more than its share of pleasant fuzz-pop anthems but never delivered on the magnum opus that was expected, the end of the relationship had to have been approached with some trepidation. On one hand, he would now be afforded the artistic freedom to indulge any musical idea he wanted; on the other hand, he no longer has the name recognition or comfort of being a member of a proven musical quantity. Having seen his slice of the Wolfie songwriting pie increasingly going to bassist Joseph Ziemba (in fact, he bowed out before their final release, 2001’s Tall Dark Hill), there is always the chance that a songwriter will find himself on the wrong end of the Scott Kannenberg/Steven Malkmus solo album continuum, which needless to say, is located somewhere next to the used CD bin for Kannenberg. In short, going solo is a mixed blessing at best.
Where Wolfie’s recorded output almost seemed frustratingly even, chalked full of big melodies and cutesy rock truisms, Downey seems to desire to undertake a study in contrast, as the National Splits seem to revel in the hit-or-miss nature of lo-fi songwriting. Using his creaky vocals and murky production to his advantage, Downey puts his personal stamp all over this 33-minute debut. Sure, you can hear definite echoes of early Bowie on the glamish “Afternoon Was Tight” or the cowbell rattling “Remember Action,” but the edge is altogether more ragged here, making screamed statements like “Don’t forget to process the photos / Remember everything with flashing eyes” almost come across as a madman’s indictment. Fear not, though, Downey really is a softy at heart, with the campfire balladry of “Where Was I?” and the pastoral sleepiness of the Wilco-ish “I Don’t Believe You” displaying a much restrained counterpoint to the occasionally confounding nature of his songwriting.
Really, the National Splits is all about finding a fun catchy tune, and Downey is obviously a master melody maker. The sunburned 60s psych pop of “I Drive Alone” or the hard piano bounce of “This Audio Account” (the latter being somewhat weakened by the unfortunate use of a water gurgle effect on the vocals) show Downey to have few contemporary equals in the realm of lo-fi fuzz anthems. On track after track, he pairs a catchy concise melody with a steady rolling rhythm, which when balanced with his strained nasal voice, constantly veering off course guitar leads, and an ear for adventurous arrangements makes for a consistently engaging and entertaining listen. No doubt, it’s been done before and probably better, but the reality of that fact never lessens the enjoyment of the listening experience or makes you doubt Downey’s sincerity.
So, even though there may be those who are still justifiably lamenting the demise of Wolfie, I have to admit finding the National Splits the more interesting product. Sure, Downey doesn’t hit a 100 percent success rate with his songwriting, but with 15 tracks, not doing so is more or less a foregone conclusion. Even in Wolfie’s best moments you were left justifying their success by making comparisons to better known bands like Weezer or Superchunk. With the National Splits, you get the experience of hearing Mike Downey’s undiluted imagination, which even if it does lend itself to a few obvious comparisons, will never be mistaken for anything but a National Splits album. Ultimately, that may make Downey the ultimate winner in his breakup.