Norfolk & Western The Unsung Colony

[Hush; 2006]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: baroque pop, chamber rock, folk rock
Others: The Beatles, Quasi, Lambchop, Belle and Sebastian, Seekonk

Okay, so Norfolk & Western singer Adam Selzer's got that "indie guy" voice. I'd find a more incisive, less subjective way to describe the guy's singing, but -- as it's a common style -- I've no doubt brought it up in more detail elsewhere. Let's just say it's that most un-blues of rock singing. Folk would be the closest candidate for the root, but it's a very 1980-present thing I hear on this and many other albums. I'm preambling, as so many ruthless critics do, simply because Unsung Colony is one of those perfect, sad-soaringly resigned rock albums. Perfect, but for the singing -- which is cloying and lacks balls. Sure the narratives and poetic lilt of the lyrics are intelligent, but it's just not enough. Exception can be taken with the somber (and somewhat reminiscent of Vetiver's Andy Cabic) vocals on "Drifter" and "The Shortest Stare." The amazing songwriting and musicianship on display here deserves a little better, that's all.

A while back, I reviewed an album by Half-Handed Cloud. On the record there were big, awesome ideas that deserved to be explored, which came and went in a very off-hand manner. Instrumentally speaking, The Unsung Colony sometimes works like the outcome of Half-Handed Cloud's showy twee nuggets expanded to stately and massive proportions. Though I take exception, admittedly there are times when vocal parts are as melodically rich as the rest of the playing. I don't even mind the possible misstep of using the pump organ-esque/Mellotron sound from "Strawberry Fields" with a melody not altogether dissimilar. It doesn't quite work as a simple allusion, but the gaping tension and release (a big, surprise strength for such an otherwise mellow initial approach) is so good, it's tough to get hung up on it.

No doubt, this is syrupy stuff at times. But it's hard not to like something so maudlin, yet so gorgeous and intricately produced as this LP. And the time of year feels just right for something a little bittersweet. Aside from having a wonderfully toasty fireplace/stomping-snow-off-your-boots vibe, these songs are versatile in pace and tone, each one filled with fascinating and unexpected sonic flourishes. Settle in and they'll surprise and intrigue you time and again, so long as you're not averse to what could fairly be called depressed progressions à la Sigur Ros or Iron & Wine -- music like that part in the movie when the man breaks down sobbing, and the woman looks grimly across the room, suddenly understanding everything.

The majority of Unsung Colony will likely feel double-edged, even for those of us who like it. We passionately attach it to someone we love and lose, and then it's suddenly like ingesting battery acid through the ear canal. Then those who hate it start to seem like they've got something figured out. Put all that aside, by God, and you've got yourself a very charming dozen tunes that are thankfully as titillating as they are dreary.

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