It is easy to imagine the members of Norfolk and Western receiving many superlatives and accolades from their classmates in their high school yearbooks. There is something infinitely likable about this band and their music. The sense is that they are working hard to perpetuate this inclination, sometimes at the expense of originality. On their picaresque album Dusk in Cold Parlours, the band places full muscle behind the compositions of Adam Selzer in a no-holds-barred attempt to win over the indie rock nation.
The results are pleasing, but looming behind the scenes is the nagging feeling Norfolk and Western are trying a bit too hard to befriend us. Intrinsically they love the same bands that we do and make sure to demonstrate it: the AM radio lounge grooves of Yo La Tengo, the idea that no modern record collection is complete without a copy of Luna’s Bewitched, and whether we admit it or not we all have a soft spot for the early albums of Robbie Robertson’s The Band. So they combine these elements to craft a flattering brand of porch pop that, while it is enticing, is so overt in its influences that it makes us wary of their intentions.
A general jack of all trades, bandleader Adam Selzer composes all the songs, handles guitar and production duties, and applies his waif-thin vocals to all but a few instrumental tracks. Selzer employs this unique vocal delivery to great effect on the dreamy “Letters Opened in the Bar”. Joined by half-time Decemberist Rachel Blumberg on vocals and percussion, this one is a throwback to the Band’s definitive debut. Horns, bells, cello, percussion, and everything else in the barn are used to build a gentle little foot-tapper, with subtle traces of gospel and soul added by employing multiple lyrical rhymes on the song’s title.
Enjoyment is the name of the game on Dusk in Cold Parlours and this is evidenced on the third track, “Terrified”. Unlike its name, this is a pretty power pop number that differentiates itself from other songs of this genre with the use of banjo and slide guitar as accompaniment to the crooning vocals of Blumberg and Selzer. Similarities can be found between this track and the work of the Rhode Island cult band Small Factory, who also used sensitive vocal harmonies to urge on their own brand of acoustic power pop on the full-length debut, If You Do Not Love Me.
Standing out from the rest of the tracks on this album is the sublime “Oslo”. Selzer makes excellent use of his voice by placing it at the fore of the mix and surrounding it with a series of ringing church bells, banjo, and a heavily distorted kick drum as the main backing instruments. Unlike other songs where assimilation appears to be the goal, here Norfolk and Western have compiled their influences and synthesized them into a new and gracious form, one that calls upon the concept of musical exploration as a necessity rather than as a hope to be loved.
The much discussed comparison between Norfolk and Western and New Jersey elder pop statespersons Yo La Tengo is ever present on the three piece instrumental “Kelly Bauman” and the symphonic explosion “Disappear”. The case for “Kelly Bauman” is that it sounds like a lost track from Electro-Pura, settling into a groove it can’t get out of no matter how earnestly the band chugs along. “Disappear” takes on a slightly different form as it presents a dream match-up in which Yo La Tengo reinterprets the Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize”. Even though Selzer’s production wisely uses instruments like mellotron and finger cymbals to accent the fragile whisper of his voice merging with Blumberg’s and then, ultimately, to contrast it with the seething electric guitar in the outro, there is still a gaping hole in the soul of this composition.
Although there are some obvious criticisms of Norfolk and Western’s Dusk in Cold Parlours, there is an overarching visceral and sustaining appeal to this album. Perhaps it is based on the stature of their influences within the songs, or more likely it is because this is the sort of record we yearn to hear played on late night college radio to get us through a long drive home. In either case, this is a band with a defined direction and it is one that that at the very least fills the void of remembrance.