Strange, but the first thing that comes to mind to praise about Portland, Oregon indie folk ensemble Norfolk & Western’s second album of the year (we’re talking 2006 here) is the sequencing. The sequencing? Yep. Structurally, The Unsung Colony is damn fine, near perfect, each elegant orchestrated folk-pop song given greater resonance by its placement in the album’s waxing and waning — even the not-as-good ones, and they’re all at least pretty good. Some, like the epic “Arrangements Made” are exceptional, an inspired blend of the Flaming Lips, Harry Nilsson, and the White Album. Featuring such accomplished scenesters as Rachel Blumberg (the Decemberists) and Peter Broderick (Horse Feathers) playing all manner of string, key, and horn, The Unsung Colony should establish mastermind Adam Selzer as a pretty major player on the autumnal/prog-quaint circuit, or whatever the kids call it these days.
Again, this album ain’t for shuffling — I found out the hard way when I heard “Banish All Rock” follow “Atget Waltz” and not vice versa. Something just wasn’t right; I had to start all over from the beginning with the projected nostalgia of “The Longest Stare”, which recalls Sparklehorse’s Vic Chesnutt tribute “Little Fat Baby” in its easy gait and curious attitude. “I’ll be watching through fences, locked behind gates / I’ll see you walk ahead in years” is puzzling, but Selzer’s lyrics don’t laugh at you when you can’t figure them out, and they don’t muddy the waters to create an illusion of depth either. The songs crack open slowly, and I’m already willing to bet there’s glitter inside. “The Shortest Stare” follows at a more shuffling, upbeat tempo, but taking along the same bleating electric guitar solos and muffled vocals. “She listened to the trumpeter’s call / ‘Polkadots and Moonbeams’ it echoed with grace, whether or not it was apropos” Selzer whispers and, apropos, the song flips the switch from hi-fi studio to a field recording of a trumpeter on a subway platform, grains of sound getting swept up by the passing train and taken miles away.
From that point, Blumberg’s “Barrels on Fire” starts with her bare-bones drumkit and piano (how does she do that, anyway?), building slowly up from the previous song into a woozy, string-laden gem. Is this album available on vinyl? Because seriously, and not to belabor the point, but albums that take you on such a deliberate journey are becoming increasingly rare, and deserve the kind of patient ritual a turntable requires. Noticing that many of the tracks were written collaboratively only makes the cohesion more impressive. And so it goes — though not without an occasional irksome moment. “How to Reel In”, though a great piece of storytelling, is the sound of the Creek drinking a six-pack of Cradles if you get what I’m saying, but with a theremin. And “From the Interests of Few”? Why must people who share my politics write such crappy songs about them! Let’s go through this one more time: “CEOs testify — but all we can do is watch on the sidelines”? No, no, no. The lyrics on the rest of the album are too good for this. Although songwriting shouldn’t have “rules”, here’s mine: political lyrics should be impossible to argue with. “Ohio”: it’s wrong for the National Guard to kill college students. “The Day After Tomorrow”: the other side don’t want to die anymore than we do. But “Generals generalize — we’re caught in a trap that leads us toward the TV telling our story”? Too clever by half.
Now “From the Interests of Few” comes right after the lovely, wordless “Atget Waltz”, and precedes the lovely, closing reprise of “The Longest Stare”, so in that respect all is forgiven. Because of course the song sits snug between the two, its twinkling vibraphone, forlorn pedal steel, and the old familiar peels of electric guitar motif soothing the savage beast that is the devil’s advocate. As the clicking of a film reel leads into the final track, the vocal melody performed by a small sea of strings, it becomes clear that Norfolk & Western aren’t the type of band to quit on an idea — they will extrapolate, condense, strip down and dress up again, and it will likely be most enjoyable.