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The Haul: National Skyline's The Last Day EP

This purchase marked the first time that I’d bought MP3s since I had an eMusic account for a few months in college. Those mp3s from eMusic (courtesy of a bulk-download monthly subscription) are absolutely worthless to me now—if not entirely deleted—since they were all 128 kpbs files and I’ve since upped my minimum standard to 192 kbps. While that subscription got me interested in a few bands (Swirlies, Pilot to Gunner), the actual music had to be replaced by physical copies in order to get listenable sound quality. (The scourge of over-compressed cymbals!) How do I know that’s not going to happen with the current standards? What if iPods make a huge jump in capacity, encouraging use of lossless files? Do I get to re-download my files? I doubt it. There’s no flexibility with digital downloads. Don’t get me started on my fear of a permanent hard drive crash, since I already had to pull the freezer trick to rescue files from my drive back in 2005.

I understand the benefits of having a purely digital musical collection, the foremost being the headache I’d avoid when I move out of this apartment in the next year, but I just love the physical thing too much. If this EP had been pressed to CD I would have already bought it, but stomaching the exchange of money for files caused a two-year delay. I’m mad just thinking that National Skyline’s new album is MP3-only, since I’d gladly buy a pressing with artwork, but that’s unlikely to happen.

National Skyline's The Last Day EP

24. National Skyline – The Last Day EP – iTunes Store, 2007 – $3

A few people told me that this National Skyline EP was back up to Garber’s old standards when it was originally released, but at the time I was still smarting from the overly L.A. output of The Joy Circuit. (“Hey you / I know you / This is not where you belong” from “They Know Where You Live” could not be a more accurate assessment.) Ever since he half-joked in a Milk Magazine interview that he’d break Castor up so he could start a band that sounds like the Offspring (only to break up Castor within the year), I suspected Garber would make a push for a major label contract. The Joy Circuit was that push. He extracted the mid-1980s U2 fetish from the National Skyline records, put Year of the Rabbit’s rhythm section to work, removed the icy electronics of the first three National Skyline releases, and dropped the depth of his past songwriting.

Garber’s always adapted to his surroundings or prevailing indie rock winds: the first Castor CD was a mix of C-Clamp and Braid with Seam-styled hushed vocals; Days in December took up Sunny Day Real Estate’s emo-core; Morning Becomes Electric was straight lo-fi indie rock; Castor’s “Miss Atlantic” brought in some of Polvo’s abrasive math-rock influence; Castor’s Tracking Sounds Alone appropriated some of Shiner’s heaviness to balance out Garber’s exploded vocal hooks; Big Bright Lights tried out a number of styles including post-rock, acoustic singer-songwriter, and post-grunge; and National Skyline primarily stuck with a U2-informed version of Antarctica’s icy electro-rock, but inexplicable aped Beck on “Identity Crisis” from the Exit Now EP. Pointing this pattern out in no way dismisses the success of those albums. Braid and C-Clamp never matched the fluidity of Castor’s “Pontiac,” Shiner never wrote a vocal hook like Castor’s “Moving Backgrounds” or “Tracking Sounds Alone,” Antarctica never channeled the emotion of “Kandles” or the effortless pop of “October.” Garber is a shape-shifter, to be sure, but there was an underlying honesty and creativity to the majority of that material, which is why I still love it and continue to listen to it. His vocals changed, his style changed, his collaborators changed, but he remained compelling. That stopped with the mush-mouthed modern rock of The Joy Circuit. He finally found a vocal style that annoyed me. He finally lost the creativity that buoyed his other work. He did not find Offspring-type success, however.

Stealing a Jimi Hendrix reference from Polvo’s Shapes, The Last Day is “National Skyline, Slight Return.” The aesthetic depth is back and Garber spit out the marbles from his cheeks, but the songwriting itself isn’t an improvement on The Joy Circuit’s EP1. The first two songs feature saccharine optimistic peaks (“How do I know where to begin? / And how do I know if it’s real?” from the title track) reminiscent of the musical cues on commercials for Grey’s Anatomy. Gross.

I downloaded this EP to compare it with this year’s Bliss & Death, a record that I initially disliked but has quickly grown on me, and when I think about how far Garber has come since The Last Day, it brings the new LP up another notch. The main problem with that LP—pacing—has nothing to do with the problems here, which is a huge cause for optimism, and not even the TV melodrama variety. If you’re going to drop money on MP3s, buy Bliss & Death.