Norfolk & Western: Winter Farewell

[4 November 2002]

By Jason Thompson

Turn off the codeine drip, please.

This is one of those albums that defies explanation. Why was it made? Who would want to listen to it regularly? What, in God’s name, is the point? I wish I knew. Having dragged myself through this one enough times to get the “point”, I can safely say that Winter Farewell is a postmodern-folk sound effects-laden noise excursion that is as boring as it is experimental.

Apparently the album has something to do with the Civil War, but one can only ascertain that from the cover art and bits of lyrics here and there. Otherwise, it’s no concept album or song cycle. The band, fronted by Adam Selzer and featuring an array of musicians and female vocalists such as Rachel Blumberg and Amanda Lawrence, sounds like it is constantly zoning out. If you’re into whispered, breathy vocals that don’t attempt to carry a tune singing fragmented bursts of inane poetry, then Norfolk & Western might be the group for you.

The group also enjoys employing sound effects in their songs. What these usually amount to are rumblings or scratchings in the background to add a sort of gloomy, grey day atmosphere to the songs—but honestly, their intended melancholy only drives the songs further into the mud. Add to that an absolutely bizarre production job that sounds mostly “live,” and which features banjos being plucked far away from the microphones, some vocals wafting back and forth and other vocals completely unintelligible, and you have yourself a small migraine. All of this was done on purpose, I’m sure, but why? It doesn’t bring any edginess to the proceedings, nor does it make the songs interesting or any more listenable. It’s second grade experimentalism at best.

For the most part, this is an acoustic affair. And the band is very good at playing their instruments. There is some very lovely music to be heard every now and then, with “Sound West” being especially pretty thanks to the vibraphone touches thrown in by Selzer. In fact, a lot of this album would possibly be terrific if it weren’t for the group’s need to dumb it down and make it sound weird.

The strangest part occurs near the middle of the disc, in the form of “Slide (reprise)” and “Slide”. Yes, the reprise comes before the actual track, so now you have an idea of the supposed strangeness we’re dealing with here. That reprise features some blistering, heavily distorted electric guitar and some other esoteric noodlings that ramble on for about a minute before settling back into the acoustic tapestries of the main tune. I’m sure that this was meant to be a bit jarring, considering the fact that most of this album sounds rustic, but actually it just sounds silly and fails miserably. Laugh at it all you like, because that’s the response it elicited from me.

On top of that, there are just too many tunes here that didn’t need to be included, making this album more of a mood piece than an actual set of songs. Four of the 16 songs here (“Slide (reprise)”, “The Silent Misinterpreters”, “What The Days Are Called”, “Thoughts of a Fictional Bride”) are sub-two-minute sketches ( a couple clocking in at around 50 seconds) that are nothing but mere filler. That leaves 12 other songs that vary in quality from slightly interesting to just plain lazy. Richard Buckner is the featured vocalist on “The Evergreen”, and it’s probably one of the best things here with its pedal steel guitars and train-like rhythm. When things are left up to Selzer, though, they tend to fray very fast. “The Things We Do On Sundays” couples the druggy pace with blasts of electric guitar chords, more sound effects, and general weirdness. Sometimes this stuff sounds like it’s going in a Nurse With Wound direction, but mostly it’s just plain dull.

To recommend this album at all would be a disservice to most anyone out there, so I won’t. The experimentalism is forced and loopy, causing what could have been an interesting set of songs to just sound screwed up with no real sense of purpose. It’s almost what could be considered a lo-fi nightmare, although the sound quality is rather good, despite the sandbagged production job. This is the kind of thing that might be recorded by some kids having a good time with some instruments and a tape recorder, but never anything that should be considered for serious release. Somehow, Winter Farewell was released. The best thing to do would be to leave it on the shelf.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/norfolkandwestern-winter/