My sister and I invented our own term for a style of music that, as of yet, has not been recognized as its own genre. We call it “Smart Rock.” We generally consider Smart Rock to be (mostly) indie rock that is on the mellow side, the emphasis usually on the lyrics, which often tell detailed stories and can be very witty. A prime example of a Smart Rock band would be The Decemberists. Colin Meloy’s lyrics are full of vivid description and his wit shines through. It is only appropriate, then, that Rachel Blumberg, The Decemberists’ former drummer, would be a part of another Smart Rock band, Norfolk and Western.
Norfolk and Western was originally founded by Adam Selzer as a recording project for him and various friends (including M. Ward). While Selzer and Blumberg remain the two principal players, they have since expanded to a fully orchestrated band complete with a viola and glockenspiel player. Their latest, A Gilded Age opens with a peculiar sound. The sound is remarkably similar to that of chirping birds and blowing wind, but in actuality it is a turn-of-the-century Victrola Gramophone that Selzer sings through. The use of such an unusual “instrument” sets the stage for Norfolk and Western’s sound: a fusion of the old world with the new. The first track, “Porch Destruction,” is slow-paced, the tempo almost like that of a lullaby. Despite the molasses speed, the song is pure intensity as string swells build and guitars give it a jolt, while it still maintains a romantic wistfulness.
The title track is far from quiet folk song, instead a bouncy banjo and pedal steel driven song, with Selzer’s biting take on modern society. “I was the one/ The favorite son-in-law/ I was on track/ To be behind the desk.” As someone who spends her day behind a desk, I can relate to Selzer’s frustration associated with the office. Selzer also comments on the isolation taking place in society, between people (“ignore your neighbors on all sides“) and between the US and the world around us (“I won’t watch the wars/ It’s easy to ignore“).
Another standout track is the haunting “There Ain’t No Place Left For Us.” A largely instrumental song, it uses a sample of a bell tolling as well as vocal sample from legendary bluesman, Skip James. Accompanying that is the viola, accordion and what sounds like to be an antique piano. It’s a short and simple song, but the arrangement and the use of the bells make the song a haunting reflection on mortality, whether intentional or not.
The centerpiece of the album is “Clyde and New Orleans,” an upbeat song which recalls the whimsical sound of circus calliopes. You can almost imagine someone yelling “step right up!” at the beginning. The song is a catchy one, with the chorus recalling ’60s girl groups, Blumberg providing up-tempo pianos, trumpets and sweet harmonies. However, don’t let the music distract you from Selzer’s lyrics. He blends past events with current ones, such as Hurricane Katrina and the Edgar Ray Killen trial, calling a pox (or in this case, a really bitchin’ instrumental bridge) on those who choose “God’s word” over reason.
This album is being called a “long-form EP” but clocking in at more than 30 minutes, it’s longer than some full-length releases. Like other Smart Rock bands, Norfolk and Western are, first and foremost, storytellers. The lyrics are witty and take on more than personal woes but also issues in society as a whole. That is not to say that the music is secondary. On the contrary, the use of unusual and often antique instruments give these folk songs a rich and layered tapestry of sounds that become more rewarding with each listen.