“Norfolk & Western is creating something new and perhaps more honest than what revivalists do.”
“All in all, The Unsung Colony is a small chamber-folk-pop stunner, all busy arrangements that service the songs rather than distract from them…In an age of iPods–that is, favoring songs instead of albums–The Unsung Colony is a reminder that some collections of songs are best listened to from start to finish, as a complete work of art, which this album certainly is.”
“The Unsung Colony is far more interesting than its production history. While traversing miraculous soundscapes, the album has a narrative focus on tiny, inter-personal threads that tie into a frayed historical context and push its story beyond the confines of a “period piece.”
“Much like their buddies The Decemberists, Norfolk & Western pulls everything off without a hitch. Instead of coming off as cornballs, this septet has created the perfect album for this month. Its bittersweet lyrics and melancholy melodies echo the mood of a crisp, overcast November day, whether youâ€™re watching dead leaves swirl on the street or holed up in your room under a blanket.”
“Their ambitious arrangements make use of the banjo, an accordian, string quartet, vibraphone, pedal steel, trumpet, and saw among the standards like guitar and drum set….At the end of the album I was pleased, but couldn’t help but wonder what I had missed; there are so many gems quietly nestled in the musical staff on which they were conceived. I wanted to immediately give it another spin.”
“Itâ€™s not hard to fall for this Oregon ensembleâ€™s scruffy, lilting chamber soundâ€”partly because the music never settles into any single convention. “
“It was instantly winning and charming music, and I didnâ€™t hesitate to buy their most recent release The Unsung Colony after the show. Good stuff.”
“Portland’s lush and delicate Norfolk & Western–which features Decemberists ex-drummer Rachel Blumberg–creates introspective, gentle piano and clean guitar-driven indie pop.”
The Unsung Colony begins and ends with the sound of film threading through a projector — a perfect effect to bookend songs that play out like scenes from old home movies and carry commensurate emotional weight. The record’s wistful melodies breathe life into memories whose fading edges belie their power over us, and the narratives give voice to characters too reserved or thoughtful to be heard above the narcissistic rabble that dominates modern culture. It may strike some as quaint to consider the power of memory and history in this age of instant analysis, but this is no nostalgia act. Norfolk & Western may incorporate gramophones and banjos into their music, quote the Beatles and prefer to tour by train, but The Unsung Colony’s message couldn’t be timelier: understanding only comes through genuine reflection.
Will anyone hear or heed the message? Let’s hope so, because The Unsung Colony’s myriad subtle strengths add up to something quite grand and beautiful. This sonic gem builds on the more assured full-band sound Adam Selzer’s been assembling since Norfolk & Western’s humble beginning as his solo project in 1998. Working with the same ten-piece band that graced their excellent EP, A Gilded Age, Norfolk & Western don’t so much expand their audio palette as polish it to a brilliant sheen. The Unsung Colony isn’t a concept record, but so solid thematically and musically that it transcends the pitfalls that typify that genre — much like a collection of great short stories can feel as coherent as a novel. Even the sequencing suggests everything is where it should be, with songs that couldn’t fit together better in any other configuration. The instrumental smorgasbord never feels tacked-on or flashy, as each glittering detail serves both the songs and the stories, from the 30 seconds of muted trumpet playing “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” at the end of “The Shortest Stare” to the ukulele that drives “The New Rise of Labor.”
The songs show off Norfolk & Western’s sonic diversity by recalling current like-minded peers or directly quoting from the band’s favored predecessors. It’s an approach that bears out The Unsung Colony’s thematic contention by uniting past and present. Opening with elegant piano chords, “The Longest Stare” surges forward behind Selzer’s shimmering guitar and Rachel Blumberg’s marching snare until it reaches the bridge and breaks into squalls of controlled feedback. It’s a contrast that Norfolk & Western use judiciously to create tension throughout the record. The song emerges at the next verse with a Mellotron quote from the opening of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” then regains momentum for a swelling crescendo reminiscent of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” from Abbey Road. It’s a memorable outro, built on ascending guitar lines, full-bodied cello and viola bows, and a synth wash that trails along like an eraser until the song suddenly vanishes mid-measure. The band then plunges into an up-tempo “The Shortest Stare,” with Selzer reflecting on how much even casual glances can reveal: “We were both reading Leviathan/Not necessarily your best seller,” he sings in a voice that sounds like an American version of Mojave 3’s Neil Halstead. Selzer’s guitar again alternates between warm octaves and summer storms of feedback, but the loping meter and vibraphone echo the high-plains drama of Pinetop Seven or Calexico (whose Joey Burns appeared on Norfolk & Western’s previous full-length, 2003’s Dusk in Cold Parlors). “Drifter” shares a similar dusky patina, with Peter Broderick’s elaborate string arrangements augmented by yearning pedal steel lines.
But the record’s sonic influences extend beyond than that. “Barrels on Fire” is chamber pop at its best, the string quartet buttressing the voices of Selzer and Blumberg, whose gossamer harmonies are among Norfolk & Western’s most effective traits. “How to Reel In” is a Sufjan Stevens-like lament that features only Broderick’s banjo, saw and violin as the trellis for Selzer’s coming-of-age tale. Subtlety may be one of their strengths, but they’re also capable of raw power. The guitar tempest that opens “The New Rise of Labor” thunders out of the gate like a lost track from M. Ward’s Post-War — it’s not a leap to imagine, since Norfolk & Western are the back-up band for Ward in the studio and on his recent tours. “Arrangements Made,” which suggests that air travel is simply lugging your metaphoric baggage around and not really traveling at all, begins with the sort of synth-soundscape and piano mix found on Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, before trumpet heralds and Blumberg’s timpani and cymbal crashes return the song to more organic roots. The influence of Blumberg’s old band can be heard on “Banish All Rock,” a stomping gypsy waltz that sounds like the Decemberists and Tom Waits tossed into a blender. An exotic foreign feel also colors the records’ two instrumentals: “Rehearsing La Dolce Vita” is a solo accordion interlude you’d hear at the Trevi Fountain in Rome, while “Atgetz Waltz” is a between-the-wars, Left Bank dance that erupts into full-orchestra serenade with glockenspiel, saw, euphonium, trumpets, mandolin, marimba and accordion creating a melodious racket. Before the record ends with the muted reprise of the opening cut, Selzer ties together all of the themes on”From the Interest of Few.” Over a gentle, vibes- and pedal steel-driven gait, Selzer compares his father’s stories from the late ’60s with the modern Bush II era, lamenting the current lack of a “common cry” and the media’s Orwellian role in marginalizing voices that might otherwise be raised together in protest. “We’re caught in a trap that leads us toward the TV telling our story,” Selzer sighs, ending with a thought many Americans may have considered as they’ve been pushed to the sidelines, “What if we were born overseas.”
It’s often said of esoteric records that each listen reveals more. But if ever a recording that didn’t require a PhD in musicology could be said to continually surprise a listener, this is it. The Unsung Colony is painstakingly crafted but also elegantly simple, as familiar and welcoming as it is new and exhilarating. And that makes it one of the most rewarding listens of this or any year.
The new record, The Unsung Colony, is due out on Oct. 24. The songs I’ve heard (especially “Arrangements Made”) lean more toward experimental soundscapes than the eclectic folk-rock of their earlier work. You’ll be hearing more about this band as other blogs begin to cover them and their national tour begins in early November (you can also see Rachel and Adam in the band backing up M. Ward this Fall)
Goes Well With: The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens,
Anybody who caught Norfolk and Westernâ€™s opening set for Pinback in April (and who managed to hear them over Kite Flying Societyâ€™s Kelly Duleyâ€™s jabber) found a new favorite dork-rock band to bookend their dog-eared Jonathan Foer books and rare Belle & Sebastian vinyl.
The Unsung Colony could be mistaken for conceptual and literary, but the Portland seven-piece (whose members moonlight with The Decemberists and M. Ward) have crafted a plaintive album of varying brands of pop that you donâ€™t need an masterâ€™s in English to dissect. The words are stark, but the music switches from Parsons-inspired country (â€œDrifterâ€), power-pop (â€œThe New Rise of Laborâ€), gypsy-folk (â€œBanish All Rockâ€) and even Coldplayish grandeur (â€œArrangements Madeâ€).
This gives the whole experience an uneven feel, but when it comes this easy, and goes down this smooth, why be so analytical?
The brainchild of Adam Selzer (Portland, Ore. producer, plus guitarist and bassist for M. Ward), Norfolk & Western now lists 10 members in the liner notes for album number four. Having played dates with the likes of The Decemberists and Sparklehorse, the band’s sound is easy to guess: brooding plunks on the piano, sumptuous strings and lovelorn vocals. The sound is wrapped around literate songwriting and understated sad-sack melodies. It’s a well-worn suit, but Norfolk’s wearin’ it well. 3 stars
Portland-based Norfolk & Western just released another full length, The Unsung Colony, building on their understated folk-rock sound. Featuring former and current members of fellow Portland-ites (how did Portland get to be the hippest town in the country all of a sudden?) The Decemberists, the band is a vehicle for Adam Selzer, who has also worked with what has to be the most talented man to come out of Portland, M. Ward. Norfolk & Western’s music contains the same reverence to history and storytelling as the two aforementioned artists. Maybe it’s the town’s proximity to the end of the Lewis and Clark trail or something. Don’t be fooled though, Selzer and Co. know how to use a studio and modern musical inventions – there is some interesting production on tracks like “Arrangements Made” and that cool ghostly wah instrument (EDIT: turns out that instrument is old school too) on standout track “How To Reel In.” Fans of down-trodden, orchestral Northwest indie rock will dig this.
Itâ€™s rare to encounter a record that keeps pulling you back in, revealing new layers every listen â€” but Norfolk & Western has created exactly that with its lovely new album, â€œA Gilded Age.â€ Listening to this is like sifting through a box of faded family photographs â€” thereâ€™s a sepia-tone beauty and smiling veneer that ultimately proves to be more of a brave face than the truth.
Upbeat numbers like â€œGilded Age,â€ â€œClyde & New Orleansâ€ and â€œWe Were All Saintsâ€ reveal themselves to be more bittersweet and tragic than they seem on first introduction, while the more melancholy tunes also reveal a greater depth of sadness upon repeated listens.
Unlike the reality of family history, Norfolk & Western has conveniently assembled the true stories behind the charming chamber-pop/old-fashioned-feeling indie rock into convenient liner notes. Itâ€™s there that you effectively go behind the scenes, gaining greater perspective into the sad characters that populate the record: the elderly couple whose porch is being demolished in the opening track, the arrogant diva of â€œWatching the Days Slowly Fade,â€ the boy so paralyzed by depression he canâ€™t turn the handle to get out of his room in â€œMinor Daughter,â€ just to name a few.
Throughout the albumâ€™s eight tracks, distorted guitars are complemented by plucky banjo, the occasional touch of pedal steel, vibraphone, glockenspiel and ghostly viola. But itâ€™s the closing track, â€œA Voice Through the Wall,â€ thatâ€™s the most haunting and affecting of all. The story of an isolated girl with a beautiful voice who occasionally sings but also tapes the narratorâ€™s own songs through the wall, it features wonderful, low-key vocal interplay by primary vocalist Adam Selzer and drummer/multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Rachel Blumberg. Itâ€™s truly mesmerizing in its understatedness, especially when it fades slowly into a muted clutter of everyday background noises.
Reading the stories (more like â€œinspirational impressionsâ€) in the liner notes adds illumination to the occasionally abstract lyrics and will keep you coming back, drawing you further in each time. Itâ€™s a remarkable album that gets better with every listen.
“A sepia-toned sound”
Adam Selzer is many things.
As a songwriter, singer and guitarist, he fronts Norfolk & Western, a Portland band that has forged a neo-traditional sound, which defies reasonable categorization. Along with his primary cohort, Rachel Blumberg, he rends thoughtful, artful music in myriad pastiches. He shapes these little works of fiction with plaintive vocals and a crew that adds violin, viola, banjo, hauntingly out-of-tune piano, accordion, cello, guitar, glockenspiel, even a musical saw.
At first blush, Selzer seems to have been born in the wrong century. With a penchant for parlor instruments, a proclivity for waltz time and a love of Victrolas, he’s a walking sepia-tone print in a world of Web-safe colors.
Then again, he feels no compunction about dropping a distorted and crushing electric-guitar bomb in the middle of a gentle, melodic genuflection. Selzer is also a producer, engineer and studio owner, manning the knobs at his Type Foundry Studio, which has helped create works by the Decemberists, M Ward (for whom the Selzer-Blumberg duo often serve as backup) and Laura Veirs.
With Selzer at the helm, the band, named for a Virginia rail line, has released an eight-song enhanced EP, “A Gilded Age,” which is as evocative and full of discovery as a box of attic photographs. Some serious layers of dust and time-worn nostalgia seem to coat what otherwise would be modern pop music.
More than anything, Selzer is an audio auteur. His visions are lush little gems that are aurally engaging. He gets big help from Blumberg, who has a soft touch with drums and voices. Additional shading comes from bassist Dave Depper (who also contributes some piano and organ), Amanda Lawrence’s romantico viola, multi-instrumentalist and found-sound shaper Tony Moreno, Cory Gray’s trumpet and Peter Broderick, who lends subtlety with violin, banjo and other instruments. The sounds they create are fresh, in a melancholy sort of way.
Norfolk & Western plays an antiquated style of music. Antiquated but not outdated. No, chief songwriter Adam Selzer’s songs about bygone eras couldn’t be more well-timed.
With the rising popularity of ‘indie-Americana’ (see the Decemberists, M.Ward), it seems clear that they are poised to expand on the groundwork laid by previous releases. They’ve been putting out records since 1998, though A Gilded Age finds the band in a state of appropriately deserved comeuppance.
N&W expand here on last year’s self-released If You Were Born Overseas with grace and moxie. The fiery, reworked version of the title track couldn’t have hit the nail on the head better. And the reinterpretation of “Porch Destination” as “Porch Destruction” adds new dimensions to a song already filled with wonderment.
When Norfolk & Western began its set at the Hi-Dive on Saturday with “Porch Destruction,” the first track on the Portland, Ore., band’s excellent debut, “A Gilded Age,” the crowd slowly shifted from the bar to the stage. And while that often happens, with PBR-swilling hipsters checking out the band for a few minutes before returning to their tap-side conversations, this time they stayed underneath the club’s modest light rig, intoxicated by a blend of $2 beers and the group’s solid countrypolitan music. The project is collaborative and expansive, but its seeds are in couple Adam Selzer and Rachel Blumberg. He sings and plays guitar; she drums and plays keyboards.
Saturday they were backed by a bass player, a Victrola gramophone and multi-instrumentalist Peter Broderick, who played nearly everything associated with chamber pop and countrypolitan music: violin, banjo, saw, mandolin, accordion and theremin. The band’s mix was perfect for the warm night (and ideal for headliners Munly & the Lee Lewis Harlots too), but while the music was potent, there wasn’t enough of it. | Ricardo Baca
By Noel Murray
Portland folk collective Norfolk & Western follows the lead of bands like Calexico and Red House Painters, setting leisurely paces and using offbeat instrumentation to create a tranquil mood. “Porch Destruction,” the first song on N&W’s EP A Gilded Age (which actually lasts as long as some full-length albums, though it only has eight tracks), sets the tone with its slow drift of strings and coda of distorted guitars and chimes. Bandleader Adam Selzer is making music for the happily immobileâ€”the kind who can identify with song titles like “A Voice Through The Wall” and “Watch The Days Slowly Fade.” A Gilded Age is dedicated to reverberations and dimming colors, like a sunset in a windy desert.
Long promised but slow to develop at long last is the post on Norfolk & Western’s EP A Gilded Age. Not that I thought you were waiting on pins and needles or anything but I like to keep my promises. Perhaps you heard Norfolk’s last album Dusk in Cold Parlors? That record was a quiet beautifully rendered set of acoustic americana with a dusty time’s passed me by feel. It fit a mood perfectly though you probably wouldn’t pick it as your dance partner. Norfolk consists of the startlingly good combination of Adam Selzer and Rachel Blumberg (she drummed for the Decemberists for awhile and if that ain’t indie cred what is?). His voice is steady and smooth thought relatively unremarkable, her’s is pretty and fills all the gaps in his. Norfolk and Western doesn’t by definition fall into the singer songwriter category but both Dusk… and A Gilde Age have the feel of projects driven by a vision that Selzer holds dear. It’s a unique sound Norfolk has created: a very moden interpretation of a very antique process. At least that’s how it wa, A Gilded Agte has turned many of my notions about Norfolk on their ear. While the new EP certainly bears many of the same marks as Dusk… such as Selzer’s clever lyrics and some interesting instrumentation, the band is clearly sleeping with their electic guitar, amp and effects peddles. A lot of the “dust” in the band’s sound has been swept away in favor of a more indie-rockin’ approach to the songs. I guess I’ll be totally non commital and say that this change in attitude is neither good nor bad, it just is. A Gilded Age’s “Porch Destruction” is an excellent example of the way the band bends their old stylistic tendencies (viola, clavinet) towards a more modern interpretation (the distortion laden guitar that fires up the 2nd half of the song).
The songs are still first rate and there are moments (particularly “There Are No Places Left For Us” and “Minor Daughter”) that reveal the band’s continuing fascination with creating an atmosphere that brings to mind a turn of the century steamboat house party adrift on the Mississippi. Except they’ve gone and electramocuted the boat and plugged in. You can’t begrudge a band some evolution and ultimately A Gilded Age works due to the strengths of Selzer’s songwriting. Quite first rate.
Adam Selzer and Rachel Blumberg, the two principal players in Norfolk & Western, certainly keep busy. Selzer, the founder of the group, is currently playing bass for long time friend M. Ward. Blumberg was the drummer for the Decemberists for a few years and is currently also with M. Ward playing the drums as well. Not to mention the fact that sheâ€™s also a regularly working painter. Of course, other members are added and subtracted for touring purposes, but these two are always at the helm of the Portland, Oregon based group.
True or not, the sound of Norfolk & Western certainly takes a nostalgic note or two from the whole idea. The music feels as if itâ€™s delving into the great unknown, hopping on the rail and heading west, as if you donâ€™t know where your going but itâ€™s going to be better than here.
The connection to the Decemberists is sometimes a hard thought to ignore, not only because of the oft-shared member and location, but because of musical similarities. The title track, a slightly different version of which originally appeared on the tour CD If You Were Born Overseas, has distinct compositional similarities to that other, more famous Portland band. The flow of the narrative style writing combined with the slightly shrouded mid-tempo pace of drumming and banjo strums certainly feels familiar. Luckily the introduction of some reverberating electric guitar gives the track a crisp feel.
While this comparison isnâ€™t wholly unfair, I donâ€™t mean to over tout its significance as it rarely fits the bill as nicely as it does on the title track. In fact, A Gilded Ageâ€™sâ€™s expansive, beautiful sound seems to be influenced by fuzzy alt-country and folk sounds at times (â€œA Gilded Ageâ€) while at others itâ€™s slow and fragile (â€œThere Are No Places Left For Usâ€, â€œMinor Daughterâ€) or the almost-rock n roll of â€œWatch the Days Slowly Fadeâ€. Whichever direction it goes, A Gilded Age always feels fresh and musically satisfying.
â€œClyde & New Orleansâ€, the albumâ€™s most accessibleâ€”and therefore in many a mind bestâ€”track is nearly a perfect pop song. The drumming nervously tiptoes toward the euphoric refrain when horns shout out loud and the male-female harmonies meld with the music like never before.
This albumâ€™s been given the distinction of an EP, but at 8 songs and over 30 minutes, itâ€™s longer than some full-length releases and certainly full of enough amazing sound to be considered one. A Gilded Age never disappoints and is rewarding just by putting the album on play. Some listeners might not even be worthy of such a reward, so Iâ€™m here to remind you not to take it for granted.
Iâ€™ve never been able to shake the railroad from my mind. In Pittsburgh, there is a huge railroad bridge that goes across the Parkway West, a disaster of a road that starts in downtown, travels through suburban hell, and eventually leads to the airport. Iâ€™d made that airport drive 1000 times before I left for good, and some of those trips were intense: the excitement of picking up an old friend, the thrill of leaving town, the sadness of saying goodbye to a lover, the joy of saying goodbye to a lover. And that bridge, with Norfolk & Western Railway Company bolted to the side, always seemed so damn symbolic. It blankly fit my mood: lonely, proud, tired, amibitious, scared.
But later on the drive, after the Fort Pitt tunnel, and still stuck in traffic, I would think of the bridgeâ€™s larger implications. It was a reminder of the prosperity and filth of the townâ€™s steel heritage, a monument to the old dream of transcontinental travel, a symbol of an entire mode of transportation that didnâ€™t quite catch on. It was a testament to the unfulfilled promise of the technology that would unite us all.
On A Gilded Age, Norfolk & Western have finally captured and realized the complications between the romanticized past and the dour present that they have never been able to reconcile on previous releases. Gaining confidence on every record since Rachel Blumberg joined the band, they have reached their peak on this longish EP, blending their art-folk-nostalgia with musical immediacy and relevant themes. Like the bridge that stretched over me, N&W can express both personal ruminations on relationships and the larger contexts of culture, music and history. Questions of technology, war, economics, and, of course, love (Blumberg and frontman Adam Selzer are dating) match with banjos and Theremins to create a Modern yet picturesque scene: a steam engine curling up a mountainside, perhaps.
This nostalgia, and Blumbergâ€™s previous duties as the Decemberistsâ€™ drummer, make nods toward that band inevitable, and â€œClyde in New Orleansâ€ fits the bill, though Selzerâ€™s vocals in â€œA Gilded Ageâ€ sound more Meloy-esque. Still, there are no pirates attacking A Gilded Age; the most obvious touchstones here are Hemâ€™s nearly-flawless Rabbit Songs and Mercury Revâ€™s massively flawless Deserterâ€™s Songs. The heart-wrenching country splendor of the former is all over â€œA Voice Through the Wall,â€ and the Victrola-sounding aging effects of the latter surface in almost every intro/outro, but most notably in â€œThere Are No Places Left For Us,â€ an instrumental reminiscent of â€œI Collect Coins.â€
The major flaw here, if you can call it that, is that the albumâ€™s two standout tracks are its first two, leaving the second half of the album to lose momentum, sputtering uphill (despite the hey-dig-that-guitar-sound punch of â€œWe Were All Saintsâ€). None of the second half is weak per se, but the opening tracks simply outshine. This is to be expected, I suppose, since they both appeared on last yearâ€™s tour-only If You Were Born Overseas, and have been played live for some time. Interestingly, this time around, they both benefit from completely opposite tweaks. â€œPorch Destructionâ€ was a fine, short number that has been expanded into a moving orchestral ballad, stretched out in both the bridge and the ending to heighten the impact of the final lines, sung in perfect complement by Adam and Rachel: â€œI know how long it takes / but can you tell me where?â€ The title track is sped up just a bit, and the overdriven-as-shit guitar (the same one that will appear later on â€œSaintsâ€) plays a more aggressive role in the opening seconds and chorus. Another gem is â€œMinor Daughter,â€ in which we are treated to a rare all female vocal performace.
A Gilded Age, while not necessarily laying new musical tracks, finally sees N&W live up to their heritage that includes work with both the Decemberists and M. Ward. Eliminating the weak spots from previous efforts and bringing in new instrumentation, N&F should enjoy this career high point, looking down on so many who are stuck in the traffic below.
Remember how heartbroken we all were when it was announced that Rachel Blumberg was leaving the Decemberists to focus on Norfolk and Western full-time? I think if we had had this song on that day, maybe it wouldnâ€™t have hurt quite so bad.
As their name would imply, â€œA Gilded Ageâ€ has a good bit of folky twang to it. Even so, the steel guitars and banjos are matched by distorted guitars and pounding drums. Norfolk and Western might be the perfect fusion of the message of folk and the innate power of rock
When butter-thick guitar tramples sexy viola to make way for the trumpet’s charge and then finally settles, bandleader Adam Selzer reminds us, “It’s entertainment â€“ that’s all we want.” Even amid sobering references to Hurricane Katrina and the Edgar Ray Killen trial, why not introduce this sonic strange brew with a trademark Victrola intro?
Selzer and partner Rachel Blumberg have played with some heavy hitters, as the backing band for M Ward, and Blumberg as the drummer for The Decemberists. Their own project, though, gives them the much deserved spotlight.
History buffs, take note: Norfolk & Western will release an EP titled A Gilded Age on April 11 via Hush Records.
The Portland, Oregon duo consists of former Decemberists drummer Rachel Blumberg and her boyfriend, Type Foundry Recording Studio boss, Adam Selzer. A Gilded Age consists of eight-songs, two of which are re-recordings from last year’s self-released If You Were Born Overseas, and a video of the title track.
Norfolk & Western was the name of a Virginia rail line owned by Selzer’s great-grandfather that was active from 1888 until 1970. But even with that connection, it still seems somewhat odd that N&W rehearse in an original Norfolk & Western freight car. They also insist on touring exclusively by train, claiming that they’d lose their “eccentric appeal and enigmatic stage demeanor and free fall into the perils of mediocre indie acts” if they didn’t
In the wrong hands, the retro-Americana chamber-pop thing can get a little cutesy. And while Portland, Oregon’s Norfolk & Western have similarities to offenders such as the Decemberists (no surprise, as drummer Rachel Blumberg is a member of both bands), there’s enough edge to its songs to keep things interesting.
Songs such as “Porch Destruction” and the title track may feature violin, banjo and other tricks of the trade, but there’s also some distorted guitar and some interesting rhythmic starts and stops to breathe life into the music. Fans of Giant Sand, Lullaby for the Working Class or Songs: Ohia will find a lot to like about A Gilded Age.
Step right up folks, the indie-folk scene is rolling into your town like those medicine-show carnivals of yore. Look across the hay-strewn lot: M. Ward is the snake-oil peddler; the Decemberists, the bearded lady; Devendra Banhart, the chicken-head-eating freak. What does that make Norfolk and Western? Judging from the band’s acclaimed fourth album, 2003’s Dusk in Cold Parlours, disc that crackled like an AM radio sending out sullen to precious songs, I would say the dynamic role of flea circus is most befitting.
Dusk in the Cold Parlours is widely considered the Portland, Oregon band’s best and most accessible release. And on the follow-up EP, A Guilded Age, accessibility is again the name of the game. Adam Selzer’s songwriting remains at the forefront, but this time it is more accompanied and arranged with more pop than fans might be used to. The EP’s best track is probably its most upbeat; “Clyde and New Orleans” is all aflutter with trumpets, keys and sweet girlie backing vocals from drummer Rachel Blumberg. Selzer’s words don’t get buried, though, and on “Clyde and New Orleans” he gets gonzo, blending current and past events with fiction, all in a pox on those who choose “God’s word” over reason. The release’s other stand out, “There Are No Places Left for Us,” is far from poppy. It uses a haunting sample from legendary bluesman Skip James as the only vocalizing in a dirge of viola, accordion and piano.
A Guilded Age is a strong proclamation from a band looking for elbow room in the suddenly mega-fashionable indie-folk scene. Selzer and Blumberg might lay the cutesy factor on a little thick at times, but their excellent musicianship and lyrical gifts make this a worthwhile EP.
Somewhere between an EP and a full-length lies Norfolk and Westernâ€™s new eight track album A Gilded Age, which comes after the bandâ€™s tour-only release If You Were Born Overseas and 2004â€™s Dusk in Cold Parlors. Hailing from Portland, the most obvious similar band might be the Decemberists, but lead singer Adam Selzer and romantic interest Rachel Blumberg, the bandâ€™s only constant members, were making music long before Meloy formed the group, not to mention that Blumberg herself was a founding member in Meloyâ€™s anachronistic folk rock band while still keeping up N&W duties.
Dusk was a mellow and tender collection of folk pop songs, while If You Were Born Overseas saw the group experimenting with more distortion and discord. A Gilded Age expands on these elements and showcases the bandâ€™s most rock oriented and fast paced songs to date. The liner notes nicely display the bandâ€™s attention to detail by including the impetus and background story for each song rather than lyrics.
Album opener â€œPorch Destructionâ€ begins with soft and sad violins as electric guitar, drums, and bass wander in, finally coming together before the sea of sound parts to make way for Selzerâ€™s voice. The violin drives the first verse of the song, staying mellow until the chorus, when a lightly plucked banjo comes in under a swelling and distorted electric guitar as Blumbergâ€™s drums accentuate the 1-2, 1-2 of the instrumentation and vocal pattern. The music varies again in the next verse with soft rolling keys. This time as the chorus comes around the instrumentation falls away almost entirely as Selzerâ€™s catchy vocals take center stage before the instruments explode into raucous discord.
The second and title track begins with an almost oriental sounding banjo and a danceable drum line, giving more and more credibility to the claim that Blumbergâ€™s drumming is one of the group’s most valuable assets, just as it was in the Decemberists. Itâ€™s a poppy and infectious track that features some of the political ideas that the band has toyed with lately as evidenced in the line â€œI wonâ€™t watch the wars/ Theyâ€™re easy to ignore.â€ The instrumentation builds to full on rock by the end of the song. Following track â€œWatch the Days Slowly Fadeâ€ mimics a similar pattern, but the addictive pure pop melody is worth noting.
Instrumental track â€œThere Are No Places Left For Usâ€ is probably the most unusual, featuring a haunting and wandering arrangement by Blumberg with vibraphone, pump organ, bells, and a credit in the liner notes to the â€œghost of Skip James.â€ It serves as a detour from the three preceding rock numbers and is an enjoyable, though eerie, interlude. The music on â€œMinor Daughterâ€ is also Blumbergâ€™s, including the vocals, but applied to Selzerâ€™s lyrics. Itâ€™s another mellow track, but very pleasant, with Blumbergâ€™s vocals layered in plenty of reverb.
â€œClyde in New Orleansâ€ is based on the lead characterâ€™s perception of a Hurricane as an act of God due to his being convicted of a hate crime murder forty years after the act was committed. The songâ€™s verses rock with a march-esqe 3-4 time signature not uncommon in N&Wâ€™s songs. The chorus is a welcome and surprising change as it channels 50’s pop with itâ€™s high pitched, steady keys and the wah-wah of the brass. The song is definitely the epic of the record, falling in and out of distorted dissonance between verses and choruses.
â€œWe Were All Saintsâ€ might be the most â€œnormalâ€ song of the collection, but with both Selzer and Blumbergâ€™s vocals and catchy instrumentation and melodies, the song is more just a great example of the bandâ€™s cohesiveness when they arenâ€™t experimenting with cacophonous sound. The band does eventually settle down in a return to earlier work on closer â€œA Voice Through the Wall,â€ which has one of the more tender storylines detailed in the liner notes; the track is driven by soft guitar and the hushed vocals of both Blumberg and Selzer.
In the end, you might be wondering why this long-time, relentless band from the Pacific Northwest hasnâ€™t ever been given more attention. Each song has something intriguing and unique about it and the undeniably superb musicianship is laid atop well-crafted lyrics. These Portland troubadours have been putting out great music for years, but with A Gilded Age, they increase the accessibility of their songs without sacrificing the crucial details theyâ€™ve always possessed.
â€œDusk in Cold Parlours is the kind of album that rewards multiple listens, revealing details slowly but surely, and once it captures you, itâ€™s hard to escape its grasp. But then, itâ€™s hard to imagine why youâ€™d want to.â€ -Pitchfork Media, 2004
â€œ There is an overarching visceral and sustaining appeal to this album.â€ -Pop Matters, 2004
â€œThis album is brilliant. -Foxy Digitals, 2004
Absolutely beautiful and moving, at times soaring, at times hushed, Dusk is never what youâ€™d expect. Perhaps the bandâ€™s most accessible album to date, this is a fantastic workâ€ -Delusions of Aequacy, 2004
“Dusk is emotional and intense, but refuses to become the kind of album you can only listen to when depressed.” – Tiny Mix Tapes, 2004
â€œWith the help of some big names (including Joey Burns and M. Ward), This fourth full-lenght album from the group hits a stride that pushes it into beautiful, assured territory.â€ -Almost Cool, 2004
â€œDusk in Cold Parlours is very much an example of exceptional expression in song; and for those who do not reap the words of wisdom from renaissance men and high school wise guys determined to take a day off from school â€“ you could very well miss it. -Sound the sirens passionate, melancholy, and inspired.â€ -Fakejazz, 2004
â€œNorfolk and Western have clearly poured their heart and soul into their fourth album, one of my favorites of 2003. -Tiny mix tapes Selzer has made an honest and clever album, broadening the parameters of his music, while moving closer to the sound of the Old West that inspired him in the first place.â€
(Compiled by Matt Steele and John Askew at Film Guererro. Please visit filmg.com.)