The latest Varnaline record, Songs in a Northern Key, has gotten a lot of positive press, and for good reason - it's a damn good record, simultaneously finely crafted and rough-hewn, with Anders Parker's gritty, honeyed vocals leading the way on 15 beautiful, bittersweet songs. However, to my ears, it doesn't hold a candle to Varnaline's 1997 self-titled sophomore record. Here's why: Northern Key is all subtle shadings, quiet acoustic picking, lush atmospherics. Sure, there are a few tunes that begin to get the blood boiling, but for the most part, the ambience is quiet and contemplative. Basically, it's all grown up, and while there's nothing wrong with that, I'm not sure that I'm quite ready to give up my bratty inner rock 'n' roll kid just yet. Varnaline, on the other hand, mirrors its cover art (a rather eerie picture of several lions attacking a water buffalo at night) in its feral approach to making rock music.
Starting off with the raw, ragged blast of "Lights", Varnaline pins the listener to the wall right off the bat, and doesn't let up for its 45-minute duration. Even the acoustic stuff is intense - "Sky'd Out", as pretty as it is, rides on a fiercely passionate vocal from Parker, with the muscular strum of his acoustic propelling the song along almost as much as the drums do. "Lights", however, is an all-out barnburner, that thrashes all over the post-Crazy Horse rock blueprint more effectively than anyone else in recent memory. Parker's voice struggles to be heard over the rampaging drums and sheets of distortion, but when it comes through, it reveals confusion and uncertainty: "I try too much / Pushed too hard, hoped for your touch / Sometimes you see / See your eyes as they see me".
After the full-throttle opening salvo of "Lights", the band brings it down a notch for the slightly poppier, classic-feeling "Meet Me on the Ledge". Once again, Parker's words detail ambivalence and uncertainty: "Meet me on the ledge / I'll be waiting there / You know I won't budge / I just need to get the air . . . All the time that I've had wings / Still I'm a stone that neither sinks not swims". At the end of the song, Parker juxtaposes the ominous threat of suicide with leaving a lover: "I wish to ramble this time, it's true / I guess I'll fly, I'll fly away from you / And on up". Although the song references The Replacements "The Ledge" in its title and subject matter, its tone is entirely different. While the Mats tune is all wiry tense, and buzzing with nervous energy, "Meet Me on the Ledge" comes across as a self-assured collision between a classic pop sensibility, a fuzzed-out guitar and a suicide note.
Elsewhere, Parker stretches out on the six-minute opuses "Why Are You Unkind" and "Really Can't Say". "Unkind" is a guitar epic that approaches the scope of benchmarks like "Down By the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand", and while it doesn't quite achieve the apocalyptic furor of either of those songs, it comes close, which is saying something. "Really Can't Say", on the other hand, is perhaps the quietest thing on the record, with Parker slowly intoning "I really can't say to you / Goodbye" over a subdued piano figure. Over six minutes, with little variation, you would think that the song would wear out its welcome, but this is not the case: Parker's words come across as meditation, and although his message and delivery are typically fraught with desperation, the song nonetheless has a very soothing effect.
The record's closer, "God in Your Eyes" aligns itself with "Really Can't Say" in its quiet, contemplative nature. These songs serve as balm for the otherwise searingly intense journey that Varnaline takes the listener on. While subsequent releases have found Parker toning down his delivery to perhaps better suit the melancholy, autumnal nature of his songs, there's simply no denying the resolute power that this band wielded at this stage in their career. Lots of bands attempt this kind of rootsy, ballsy, powerful rock and roll, but at this point, Varnaline just might have been the best of the lot. Certainly, they are one of the few who were able to stand toe-to-toe with the mighty Uncle Tupelo and not blink an eye. Fiery, passionate, powerful, honest and personal, Varnaline is a record that refuses to simply entertain - it touches the heart, makes you think, and rocks like a motherfucker in the process.