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Musical Pairings: The National – Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers (paired w/ Breton Buckwheat Cake)

The breton buckwheat cake recipe featured today on eating/sf is a new favorite of ours. Thanks to the buckwheat, it is dense, rustic and has a slight, but noticeable, hint of alcohol courtesy of the rum. More, it’s buttery and aromatic thanks to the cinnamon. The addition of sea salt gives it a nice little tang that makes it quite different from the typical sweet dessert. That is why it is a great dessert for adding toppings (such as maple syrup and/or yogurt or whipped cream). For those reasons, The National’s sophomore album, Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, is the ideal pairing for this recipe. And it is also an ideal pairing since this buckwheat cake is one of my new favorite desserts and Sad Songs is one of my favorite albums.

Compared to The National’s subsequent albums, the first half of Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers is rustic and feels more musically inspired by a desolate Raymond Carver-esque sense of Americana. It is in many ways a musical expression of Henry David Thoreau’s idea that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” A number of the songs on the album (“Slipping Husband,” “Murder Me Rachel,” and “Available”) begin quietly with Berninger singing in his distinctive, almost dry baritone, but end intensely with Berninger growling in anxious desperation. “Slipping Husband” is about a man who is “haunted by the imported life he could have led” had he not had a child early in life, but whose preoccupation with what could have been (instead of what he has) is leading to the collapse of his home life and the gradual loss of his wife’s love. As in life, alcohol is popular in the lives of Berninger’s characters, but one that causes more problems than it solves. On “Available,” Berninger sings “how can you blame yourself / when I did everything I wanted to – you just made yourself available” leading to one of the album’s most ferociously explosive moments when Berninger repeatedly howls, “why did you dress me down and liquor me up.” Another highlight and personal favorite from the first half is the fiery “Murder Me Rachel” which is filled with anxious energy thanks to tense string arrangements and sharp, tingling guitars. With the exception of “Available,” the second half is more subdued and traditionally melodic. “Sugar Wife,” “Trophy Wife” and “Patterns of Fairytales” are all shimmering and brightly textured. Despite their more subdued nature, they are still as (and maybe even more) emotionally engaging as the bulk of the National’s catalog. “Patterns of Fairytales” is probably the song that first sold me on the band. The shining lush arrangements of the beautifully complex “Lucky You” make it a fan favorite, and one of the best album closers I’ve ever heard by any band – in the same league with “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” “Videotape,” and “Life In a Glass House” by Radiohead. If you liked Alligator and/or Boxer – you’ll also love Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers.

The National – Murder Me Rachel

Head back to eating/sf to read Kasey’s recipe for the breton buckwheat cake.

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