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Norfolk & Western - Dusk In Cold Parlours

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Artist: Norfolk & Western

Album: Dusk In Cold Parlours

Label: Hush

Review date: Jan. 5, 2004

Portland, Oregon’s Norfolk & Western is less a band proper than an outlet for the songwriting of Adam Selzer, who serves as the group’s vocalist, guitarist, and producer. On Dusk in Cold Parlours, his fourth full-length release (and first on Hush Records), Selzer enlists the help of like-minded musicians such as Decemberists’ drummer Rachel Blumberg, Calexico’s Joey Burns, and eccentric folkie M. Ward. Selzer’s choice in collaborators provides a fairly clear idea of his overall style; Norfolk & Western inhabits the same haunted and haunting Americana terrain as Songs:Ohia and Iron and Wine, while incorporating more characteristically indie-rock tendencies than either of the two. Dusk in Cold Parlours may essentially be a folk album, but its musical vocabulary stretches far beyond traditional acoustic sounds. Norfolk and Western often embellishes the acoustic guitar-based folk format with esoteric instrumentation (mellotron, horns, melodica, bells), creating dense musical arrangements more evocative of '60s baroque pop than anything in the current indie-folk scene.

Despite their generally rich and varied sonic palette, Selzer’s songs tend to be simple and sparse, rather than melodic or poppy. Likewise, he takes a decidedly folky approach to vocals, delivering them in a tentative and breathy whisper often uncannily reminiscent of Luna’s Dean Wareham. Neither of these qualities would necessarily be problems in themselves, but Dusk in Cold Parlours moves at an almost invariably glacial speed, and often seems too cold and detached to be genuinely engaging. The chilly melancholic atmosphere is conveyed effectively enough, but the album falls a bit flat as a result of the absence of comparably strong songwriting. As a result, the lush instrumental arrangements Selzer employs come off as gratuitous and empty, used more as ornamentation for dull songs than as ends in themselves. The album is most successful when the band gives in to its pop tendencies more fully, as on the Calexico-meets-Brian Wilson instrumental “Kelly Bauman,” or the mellotron-driven “No Else Where He Can Go.”

The seeming incompatibility between Norfolk & Western’s folk and pop tendencies doesn’t result in a bad album, but suggests that Dusk in Cold Parlours might have been more exciting than it actually is; Adam Selzer’s music sounds great on paper, but comes across as surprisingly dispassionate and dull in practice. Inspired instrumental performances and impressive arrangements notwithstanding, the album is too restrained and languid for its own good. Even so, the brand of restraint that induces sleep in some may prove soothing or pleasantly entrancing to others; that considered, there’s probably no better time than the middle of winter to enjoy Dusk in Cold Parlours.

By Michael Cramer

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