I hope I’m not getting the timeline wrong here, or even just being cynical, but an album made up of demos, unreleased tracks and live versions, released after a band’s last release on one label, but before their first in their new home, does smell a little of the last chance cash grab saloon, even when the two labels serve the same master. What music fan hasn’t been burned at least once by that approach? Not that it’s as much of an issue when you can cherry-pick, downloading only the tracks you’re interested in.
And truth be told, I’ve never had much time for parts of The Virginia EP: I don’t need a live version of Fake Empire, a demo of Slow Show, or a session version of Lucky You. A live Springsteen cover? Again, I’m passing. It’s not just because most of these have already been released as b-sides, it’s because they don’t excite, or bring anything new.
But where The Virginia EP shines, and it really does shine, is at the top: Santa Clara and Blank Slate, b-sides to Mistaken For Strangers, the first single released from Boxer are both comfortably good enough to have found a berth in that album’s tracklisting. Santa Clara is as time-stopping as anything The National have recorded, taking its cues, all horns, all stately and refined, from the rest of the tracks on Boxer.
I’m gonna run to the river, gonna kiss my hand and wave, gonna run to the river, gonna throw a blue bouquet cos they’re gonna be cool happy genius heroes, i’m gonna miss them so much
Blank Slate, in contrast, could have added some urgency to Boxer. Melodically it doesn’t do anything that most of that album, or even Santa Clara, already did, but there’s a clarity about it that give its driving rhythm more impact than much of Boxer.
Tall Saint is listed as a demo, but doesn’t sound like it - another track that could have easily made the cut for Boxer, but it has you thinking that the final tracklisting for the album must have involved some tough calls - why not release the album then follow it with an EP, like they had already done with Cherry Tree? Six or Seven tracks to follow Boxer could have been a devastatingly effective mini-LP. They could still have started it with ‘You’ve Done it Again, Virginia’, another perfect bar-room tale of another person lost in the drink: “You’re tall, long legged and your heart’s full of liquor, and me and everybody are just ice in a glass”.
Like the lives of so many characters in songs by The National, it could have been so perfect. If only…