The National
w/Menomena, Talkdemonic
Wed June 8, Crocodile, 9 pm, $10, 21+.

"People expect me to be much darker," smiles Matt Berninger, the National's gregarious and impressively tall singer/lyricist. "They're disappointed when I'm not morose."

It's easy to see why folks might get the wrong impression. Here's a band who named their second album Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, and whose frontman delivers explicit tales of doomed romance in a lachrymose baritone that's sure to skewer the hearts of Leonard Cohen fans everywhere.

But that's only half the story. Recently released on Beggars Banquet, their third LP, Alligator, finds Berninger's colleagues-guitarist twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner, plus rhythm section siblings Scott and Bryan Devendorf-creating a sound that's simultaneously bruised and bejeweled. Occasionally volatile yet always melodic, they blend shimmering, rhythmically nuanced post-punk (Interpol producer Peter Katis helped out) with svelte chamber pop textures (the string arrangements are by Australian composer Padma Newsome, who also plays with Bryce in the avant-garde project Clogs). From the surreal strut of "All the Wine"-"I'm a perfect piece of ass... I'm a birthday candle in a circle of black girls"-to the yearning, lust-soaked "Karen," these are the kinds of the songs that turn reasonable people into zealots.

It makes sense that the quintet have toured with Arcade Fire; both groups project an intoxicating mix of vulnerability and defiance, and are similarly hard to place. When asked about formative musical influences, the National reel off a list that includes the Smiths, the Grateful Dead, Violent Femmes, the Allman Brothers, U2, and Mental Health by Quiet Riot (Scott Devendorf: "The one with the mask on the cover. My mom made me take it back"). Yet many reviewers have them pegged as a downbeat Americana posse.

"We used to get called alt country a lot," says Berninger, whose whiskey-fuelled performances often see him dangling from the lighting rig or consumed by the front row. "These days it's more rock. More screaming. Onstage there's a whole euphoric adrenalin rush."

Berninger and both sets of brothers knew each other long before the band formed. The five of them grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and moved to New York individually in the late 1990s. A briefly successful dot-com entrepreneur, Berninger penned their self-titled 2001 debut in his basement and the others-by now all living in Brooklyn, working in graphic design and publishing-dropped by to record the music. They started playing live, just small shows in coffee shops, which eventually led to European dates, record deals, and full-time touring band status.

It's those additional years of experience that set The National apart. Most rock 'n' roll songwriting-and this certainly isn't a criticism-perpetuates an adolescent worldview, where everything is black-and-white and your cup is either overflowing or smashed to pieces. Matt's protagonists tend to be less certain: after-hours barflies whose salad days are behind them and awkward urbanites facing the realities of adult life.

"As far as the exposing love songs go, there are bits about real relationships. But a lot of it's fiction. One friend of mine was upset by 'Slipping Husband' [off Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers] because he thought it was about him. And it actually wasn't... that much! It talks about a guy fucking up with his family, but it's really just me worrying about the stress of growing older and wondering whether I could be a father. In most of my songs somebody's trying to do the best they can. I don't think they're necessarily about failure."

This latent optimism breaks out to exhilarating effect on "Mr. November," the furiously profane anthem which closes Alligator. "That's like a desperate, triumphant, delusional cry-but it's also really positive. We were finishing the record in November and there was the presidential election, plus [baseball player] Reggie Jackson was always called Mr. October. So it's inspired by all that, and also by going after this ridiculous dream of being a rock musician."

And what about the album title?

"That's a line from the song 'City Middle': 'I wanna go 'gator round the warm beds of beginners.' We wanted something snappy. There's also this undercurrent of tension in the record that makes Alligator appropriate."

It seems apt that they're playing the Crocodile Cafe.

"Actually," notes Bryce, "alligators aren't as scary as crocodiles. They're smaller, and there's something kinda goofy about them." ■