"The Dynamics Duo: Portland’s Norfolk & Western Say it Loud"
Appeared in West Coast Performer Jan 2006
By Shannon Coulter
Photo by Zak Riles
Like tiny seed pearls, a string of lovely yet unexotic adjectives adorn a swath of band reviews in a sedate corner of the Hush Records web site: "shimmering," "fragile," “bittersweet,” "sepia-toned” — each one part of an accepted indie rock lexicon upon which journalists and fans alike appear to have reached some sort of silent consensus years ago.
There are even standard metaphors in this parlance, and they’re all here too: "time-worn patina,” "vintage attic heirloom," "late-night lonely highway,” each lovingly affixed to this band’s consciously subdued catalog. Even if not exactly original at this point, such de rigeur descriptions have all been perfectly appropriate for Norfolk & Western’s brand of dusky, almost dusty Americana.
Appropriate, that is, until now.
Rediscovering not only their love of up-tempo pacing and guitar feedback, Portland, Oregon’s Adam Selzer and Rachel Blumberg (longtime romantic partners as well as creative collaborators) have been ramping things up lately, shifting their songwriting focus from nostalgic and historic themes to ones more grounded in the present day.
“In the past I was writing more about the past,” said Adam. “For some reason this latest batch of songs is more contemporary. I don't know if people would even recognize that or not.”
The change is more palpable than he may realize. Less steeped in melancholy and less preoccupied with their own elegant wistfulness, Selzer and Blumberg’s new material sounds much more awake than their past work, and lends itself far less easily to the same old indie clichés. It also incorporates a dizzying array of musical styles, revealing them to be deeply literate musicians and songwriters, able to draw on a huge range of musical references — some of which last just seconds before shifting to another, radically different allusion.
“There’s definitely been a change,” says Blumberg. “I think part of the change has to do with the fact that Adam and I were touring a lot as a two-piece with M. Ward and as that was going on we were finding ourselves wanting to express ourselves a little differently. We were at Maxwell's in New Jersey and I'm not sure what took hold of us, but we kind of exploded musically and it felt really good.”
“At the same time, Adam was starting to write songs a lot less slow in tempo and we were getting kind of tired of playing as a two-piece,’” adds Blumberg, who played drums for The Decemberists up until 2002 when she left to devote more time to Norfolk & Western. “We got excited about playing with other musicians like our viola player, Amanda Lawrence and Tony Moreno, and so we’ve now evolved from a two piece into a six piece band.”
“And Rachel’s a great drummer,” he adds. “Snappiest drummer I've ever known. She's got a trademark flam — when you let the stick stutter on the snare — style. She always looks confident and in control. Some drummers get all sweaty, or they bounce a lot or make funny faces and look really wild. Rachel and Adam are really classy.”
In their new, feistier mood, Selzer and Blumberg appear to be more willing to turn their songwriting talents on present-day socio-political realities. The title track of this new album, A Gilded Age, is about a young man who is eager to succeed in the business world, but who craves entertainment far more than truth, art, or even contact with other people. Told from a first-person point of view, the narrator boasts that he’ll solve the new energy crisis from behind his desk, but says that he refuses to watch the war (“it’s easy to ignore”) on television or anywhere else. The narrator’s distaste for the outside world is a vast, shadowy ignorance that contrasts artfully with the glare of his self-importance.
“Lyrically, I was much more stream-of-consciousness when I started out,” says Selzer. “Now I try to create narratives, but not too literal. I want them to still be open to interpretation.”
The song “Clyde and New Orleans,” too, has as its roots in the narrative traditions of folk music, but quickly moves into original territory when it dissolves from a lo-fi waltz into silky doo-wop that later morphs into a frenetic, postmodern klezmer swirl. It’s a testament to Selzer and Blumberg’s musicianship that this doesn’t end up sounding like a horrible mish-mash. They turn on a stylistic dime several times during the five-minute track, creating a cohesive sound out of a multitude of references and eras. In lesser musicians’ hands, the song would sound schizophrenic, but in theirs, it’s kaleidoscopic.
To round out this new crazy-quilt style, Selzer and Blumberg took advantage of Portland’s eternal band member swap meet, getting help from bassist Dave Depper (whom Selzer has called "a ball of positivity") of Blanket Music, Toothfairy, and up-and-comer The Village Green (reviewed here in February). Accordionist Tony Moreno lent a hand as well, as did Chris Funk of The Decemberists, who plays banjo and pedal steel on A Gilded Age.
“I think they realized something very fundamental as a band more recently that the former line-up didn't quite realize,” says Crouch. “It's really fun to play fast. Adam always had it in him. It was almost effortless for him to write those songs. Maybe he stopped trying so hard.”
Then again, A Gilded Age isn’t all completely uncharted territory for Selzer and Blumberg. The track “Minor Daughter,” written by Blumberg, is a startlingly beautiful ballad that shows off the wintry purity of her voice in addition to her own considerable lyrical talent. The mostly instrumental “There Ain’t No Places Left for Us,” is so warbled, so deliciously bygone with its parlor piano and town square church bells in the background that it seems capable of erasing the entire genre of techno music from the face of the earth.
Despite all the recent changes, Selzer, who has been described as “enigmatic” and “a chameleon,” is still as reluctant as ever to talk up his own work, which he describes in largely elliptical terms. He also refers to the business end of things as “slimy” and expresses admiration for those who don’t care to involve themselves in it.
“Its great to see those people who don't care about getting any further and just put themselves out there for those the sake of who are fortunate enough to hear them, and that’s enough for them. That is so refreshing and admirable.”
He’s still into found sound too. Birdsong from an old 78 runs throughout the album, and almost every track is trimmed with bits of noises both strange and familiar — scraps of odd, intricate sounds that are to audiophiles what shiny little objects are to a magpie. It’s this characteristic attention to detail and texture that once led a Norfolk reviewer to plead with his readers, “please listen to this music on headphones!”
“I like working in the singer-songwriter milieu because there's more freedom in arranging. Bands tend to have really concrete ideas about the parts, whereas individual songwriters tend to be more open-minded.”
And yet, Selzer admits that even his favorite kind of studio work is less diverting than it used to be. “I’m getting kind of burnt out on it. Right now, I’d rather do my own music and play it, but I still need to do the studio work to make ends meet.”
Selzer and Blumberg will be escaping the confines of the studio soon enough though. Norfolk & Western is touring in conjunction with the release of A Gilded Age this spring — a great opportunity for indie rock fans to see all that nimble musicianship and rapid gear-shifting up close. As for the critics, it’s impossible to say whether they’ll adore the new music as much as past works, but one thing is for sure: they’ll need to crack a thesaurus to write about it this time around. The same old adjectives just will not suffice.