Unlocked: The Key’s review of Almost Endless by The National Rifle

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There are ways to deal with frustration and disappointment through music. You could take the pouty, solitary route – and certainly, singers from Nick Drake to Night Beds have done that with breathtaking results. You can do the aggro-bummer thing – I think of course of the nu-metal nadir of aughties angsty “modern rock.” Or, you could do something that’s less of a drag, something that doesn’t stew in upsetness but channels it into a positive release.

Now, I can’t claim to know what exactly Hugh Moretta and his bandmates in The National Rifle are upset about. They don’t provide us with many specific lyrical clues, either. There a lot of vagueness about not wanting, and not having. But on the new Almost Endless – the band’s full-length debut, and it’s most refined effort to date – the frustration is palpable, as is the joy.

Having garnered a reputation as a hard-touring party band on the night club / house show circuit, TNR’s sound was formerly scraggly and boisterous. But with a few notable exceptions – “Jazz History of the World” from the Vanity Press EP, and it’s self-depricating opening stroke “I’m the same age my mother was when she had me, but I’m not grown up” -  it didn’t particularly tug at any emotions, short of “let’s have fun.” This album takes that honest, reflective side of the band and chases it full speed ahead.

Glimmering opener “Coke Beat” is restless and confused – “Don’t look around,” Moretta repeats in harmony with keyboardist Lynna Stancato. “Can’t understand. I’ll wait around. Nowhere to go.” There’s a feeling of being stuck in place, cornered, defenseless. Later on, propulsive synth-rocker “So Real” is in the same spot: “We’re never done. Can’t outrun. Be there always.”

The words across the album read more like stream-of-conscious phrases and random thoughts rather than beautifully flowing lyrics. They’re not specific, as I said – could be about anything, really, which makes them a fine blank canvas for listeners to project their own disappointments onto. But this exhausted brevity also hammers home the point of frustration and stagnation – the things the band’s sound looks to overcome.

“Glass Line” drops tones of 90s dreampoppers My Favorite and Saint Etienne as Stancato sings “You want, you want, you want it all.” Wanting comes up again in the title track – its unconventional structure betrays Moretta’s musical schooling, but its bright chords and falsetto refrain are exhilarating as he sets the stage: “You know what you want.”

Mixing barbs about abandonment and dejection with exuberant rock and roll is the crux of the album – see “Street Burn,” which we’re offering as a free download all week. But in the end, after transforming these worldly frustrations into uplifting music, the message at the end of the album is self-confidence and self-reliance. “All the ways you were wrong,” Moretta and Stancato repeat as “Night High” trails into the night. “All the ways that we’re not.”

Almost Endless is the featured album in this edition of Unlocked; hear the spotlighted single “Street Burn” in yesterday’s post, and check back later in the week for interviews, video and more.