Review Summary: A Stellar Entry in a Stellar Discography
“The Virginia EP” is far more than an assorted collection of B-sides but instead a strong, fully-formed piece of work, one that ranks up with other classic EP’s like “My Iron Lung” (1994), “Pisces Iscariot” (1994), and Arcade Fire’s debut (2003) as well as The National
’s other albums. The 4/5 rating does not mean ‘it’s excellent for an EP’ but rather ‘it’s excellent for an album’ – a judgment that holds true even if the demo/live versions of previously released album material (Slow Show, Lucky You, Fake Empire) are removed.
“The Virginia EP” has a proper opening song with the midtempo “You’ve Done It Again, Virginia”, which resembles “So Far Around the Bend” from “Dark Was the Night” (2009) in its bouncy rhythm, and a perfect closing formed by the back-to-back live recordings of “Mansion on a Hill”, “Fake Empire”, and “About Today”. “Mansion” is one of the better Springsteen covers available with a violin and Matt Berninger’s baritone adding a new perspective to the sparse original. “About Today” embellishes the original recording (available on the “Cherry Tree” EP) with intricate guitar work that explodes in the final minutes as the audience claps along.
The harsh guitar chords and Berninger’s muffled voice on “Rest of Years” recall the better tracks on “The National” (2001) while “Blank Slate”, which reworks the lyrics from “Keep It Upstairs” from the Abel EP, packs the punch of “Apartment Story” thanks to Bryan Devendorf’s typically stellar drumming – if “The Virginia EP” were a proper album “Blank Slate” would be the lead single. It’s also more straightforward than a typical National Song – Berninger’s lyrics of confusion and self-doubt still play an important role throughout “The Virginia EP”, but for the most part his characters sound more clear and confident. He proclaims that he’s “an extraordinary man unbroken in the breaking light” on the excellent “Forever After Days” and offers the tentatively reassuring “I don't worry anymore/Nothing like I did before” on “Santa Clara”. If nothing else, the success of the more grounded songs on “The Virginia EP” demonstrates that the sustained melancholic gloom of “Boxer” (2008) and “High Violet” (2010) is the result of artistic choice rather than limited range.
Many of these songs on “The Virginia EP” were available well before its release, so longtime fans are likely to find it to have a limited amount to offer, but relative newcomers – like the many who were introduced to The National
through “Boxer” and “High Violet” - will find plenty to love. The National produces some of the best B-sides around (check out “Cherry Tree”, “Ashamed of the Story I Told”, and “Driver, Surprise Me” for a few other great ones), and “The Virginia EP” is a testament to that.