Old National Geographic magazines inspired the concept of National Road, a most exuberantly rich album featuring layers of orchestral rock and excellently arranged instrumentation. The Portland “four-man orchestra” known as Bark Hide and Horn present a complex storyline that interweaves various tableaux. Singer-songwriter Andy Furgeson tells the tale of Melville Bell Grosvenor, the grandson of Alexander Graham Bell, who edited the Geographic from 1957-67. Melville switches from brilliant mind to madman as he journeys through the minds of silenced National Geographic subjects. From Ham, the first chimpanzee in outer space, to the enslaved honey ant, the characters speak from their different vantage points.
“Grandfather” begins with a twinkling glockenspiel and vibraphone by bassist Peter Valois and a soft organ, by multi-instrumentalist Brian Garvey, blurring the sparks. Furgeson enters but lingers in the background, subtly coming to the forefront. The twinkles become more and more definitive as Furgeson waxes nostalgic about the connection he felt with the legendary figure who just so happens to share Grosvenor’s blood line. Shifting from angelic and smooth baritone to aggressive mini-yodels and the cries of a spouting madman, Furgeon’s vocals adapt to each environment with ease. Alexander Graham Bell’s spirit takes hold of Grosvenor as drummer Dusty Dybvig enters with a cavalcade of drums amidst a stately trumpet (Garvey), buzzing guitars (Furgeson), and a junky percussion section (Garvey). A slight techno moment passes as Garvey layers ephemeral synth overtop the quirky jam. An a cappella vocal round with punk rock semi-shouts and harmonies halts the momentum for just a moment before returning to jaunty mix from earlier. And this is only the third song.
With a chunky five to six-minute average song length, the tracks bend and stomp through the mindsets of each article’s character. Some songs even delve beyond the production scenes. For instance, the title track follows the whining of a staff writer’s discontent wife. Her story sounds the same as any woman taken for granted and forgotten. A saucy New Orleans brass sound opens the song with Garvey’s trumpet wailing. Shortly thereafter, Valois lays down some fairly simple but funky basslines that develop into something more cutting and frenzied. With “Oh baby you’re breaking my heart / oh baby you’re making it hard to be your lady”, Ferguson thrusts his vocal chords and whatever spittle is there into the wife’s fervor of emotion.
“Trumpeter Swan” starts in a murky space, something slight and muddled with pianissimo whispers and delicate guitar strumming. The bird sits in this muck before emerging into the magnificent swan. “Passing hours in a muskrat lodge with sludge up to my waist” leads into “Blow your trumpet / Sound your cry”, a legato set of phrases set right below a soaring trumpet. Like Grieg’s “Peer Gynt”, the trumpet takes the persona of the swan. The last song, “Curtain Call”, brings the mystical journey to an end with sobering tremolo picking, effervescent violin, and psychedelic mixtures of pedal steel and guitar feedback, an eclectic mix representative of the myriad of instruments heard throughout this concept album.
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