Let’s get this out of the way first: this is an atypical EP. At nearly 49 minutes long, with twelve songs packed in, it certainly feels like an LP. But that’s just it, in order to fully accept this collection of B-sides, rarities and new versions you just have to remind yourself that it is an EP. Yes, it’s by The National — one of the best American bands currently making music — but not everything on The Virginia EP works. And unlike last year’s stunning Boxer, this is not one of the best releases of the year.
Now forgive me if I come off premature, it’s a well-known fact that The National’s music has been tagged as “growing music.” Heck, even yours truly hinted at that on my review of the band’s majestic album from last year. However, the songs on this album don’t cover much new territory to really imagine that in a month or two, they will be revealed as breathtaking pieces of music.
Some of the songs were heard on last year’s album: “Slow Show” and “Fake Empire.” The former is an early version that sounds hazy and muddy; the latter is taken from a live show; nothing spectacular. A couple were left off last year’s album: “Santa Clara” and “Blank Slate.” The former is a slow grower that features some nice syncopated horn work at the end, while the other is an upbeat piece with a toe-tapping drum pattern. While both are pleasant, they are B-sides for a reason and were rightfully left off last year’s album.
Part of the reason why the band even made this EP was for fans to have something to latch on to when they bought Vincent Moon’s DVD covering the recording sessions of Boxer, entitled A Skin, A Night. Moon, most famously known for his “Take-Away Shows,” which feature artists and bands performing songs in unusual settings, does a decent job on the DVD. It’s shot more as a documentary and though some parts are enjoyable, it ends up unfulfilling.
But some of the songs show exactly why anyone would even want to make a DVD about The National. “Without Permission” is a tender love song about heartbreak and wanting her to come back. It’s highlighted by a sparkling guitar line, a catchy bass and an appropriately-placed shaker. It does a great job of showcasing how the band is able to manipulate lush music to evoke exactly what the lyrics are saying. “Lucky You” is a piano-driven ballad, again, about love and though it’s simple, is still an effective piece of music.
I guess it’s nice to have all of these songs in one compact package. And the closer — popular concert-closing song “About Today” – is a fine addition. I’m torn because after four singular albums and a great EP, this just feels like a let down and unnecessary. They honed in all of their strengths on last year’s masterpiece and although The Virginia EP has its highlights, they certainly aren’t comparable. Few will devour this but I’d have waited until their next proper studio album where they can flesh out all new music to deliver another knockout before releasing this EP.