CAMBRIDGE -- The National, a rock 'n' roll band from Brooklyn, sold out their Thursday gig at the Middle East within a day. A second date was added; that sold out too. For an outfit that's long flirted with commercial success, this kind of pull -- echoed in ticket sales across the country -- is particularly striking. As frontman Matt Berninger recently told the Globe, " We've been to all of these places many, many times before and now all of a sudden there's a big crowd showing up for the first time."
It's been about a month since the release of "Boxer," the National's latest bedroom rock opus. Like last year's "Alligator" and 2003's "Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers," the album is built mostly of soft, sweeping anthems, keyed to Berninger's rheumy tenor. But "Boxer" marks an evolution in focus for the band, which no longer seems so interested in merely sustaining a darkly familiar ambience.
On Thursday night, in a 90-minute set, Berninger sang from both ends of the National's songbook, coupling loud laments like "Mr. November" with understated ballads like "Fake Empire" and "Start a War." Shout-alongs followed whisper-alongs; guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner shifted from screeching fretboard assaults to finger-picked breakdowns.
The immediate effect of the disequilibrium was to break open the natural atmospherics of Berninger's voice and expose each song's lyrical and structural conceit. Under the verse of "Mistaken for Strangers," for example, Berninger complained about "another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults." Later, he confessed he'd had a "secret meeting in the basement of my brain. It went the dull and wicked ordinary way."
The National first attracted critical attention a half-decade ago, though most listeners ended up writing off the group as another brooding, ambient post-punk band. It's unlikely many indie rock fans will make that mistake again.
Up-and-comers Shapes and Sizes played the second of two opening sets, a 40-minute barrage of tone-deaf rock pastiche. The Montreal quartet is talented but seems to have little understanding of its audience; continuity and accessibility -- nice traits for an opener -- were replaced by nails-on-chalk verses and long bouts of screeching. Counting conservatively, I heard snippets of blues rock, experimental rock, hillbilly rock, prog rock, shoegaze rock, '50s rock, punk rock, Canada rock, American garage rock, grrl rawk, dude rock, and one astonishing passage of opera.