Riding the wave of success on the National’s highly touted 2007 release, Boxer, comes The Virginia EP, a disc of B-sides, live tracks, and unreleased material, and A Skin, A Night, a documentary about the band by Vincent Moon. Following the band at close range during the recording of Boxer, Moon’s sixty-minute film has been criticized as either a bloated press-kit in disguise or for portraying the band as gloom-laden sourpusses, but it really isn’t either. Moon’s rough-hewn, cut-and-paste approach serves as a loving companion to a hardworking band not entirely unfamiliar to the hard knocks and disenchantments of recording and touring. Moon’s art house approach may be overbearing to some, but it works as a fine visual accompaniment alongside the National’s arresting soundtrack.
The Virginia EP has a wealth of material unearthed from over the past year. Unreleased track “You’ve Done It Again, Virginia” opens the EP with stately piano and horns brimming over the warm arrangement, with Matt Berninger’s now-famous baritone delivering distressing lyrics about a “tall, long-legged” girl named Virginia who “can’t talk to people” and “can’t tell a story.” It’s followed by previous B-sides “Santa Clara” and “Blank Slate.”
As far as the demos go, they are a fine glimpse into the band’s process, particularly the chorus-less demo for “Slow Show," which feels more like a pastiche of emotions and ideas than the piercingly straightforward version on Boxer. Meanwhile, the regal, slow-burn arrangement and restrained chorus of "Tall Saint" stands up to the sturdiest tracks on Boxer.
As anyone who has seen the National’s live shows can attest, the live tracks serve as will and testament to what a great band this is. Bruce Springsteen cover “Mansion on the Hill” gives the typically dreaded idea of a potential covers album not seem like such a bad idea, while moments of highly charged elation stemming from the melancholic “Fake Empire” and eight-and-a-half-minute “About Today” give even stadium-rock bands a run for their money.