REVIEW: Norfolk & Western: Winter Farewell
Norfolk & Western: Winter Farewell [Film Guerrero, 2002]
Three words? Upstaged by art.
Gothic Country-Folk has come of age. The groundwork and innovation has been laid out by artists such as Lambchop, Sparklehorse and the Palace Bros, the fanbase has been collected, and up till now only one ingredient was missing: the imitator. With Winter Farewell, Norfolk & Western have ushered Gothic Country-Folk into adulthood, demonstrating that dark, open songs can be recorded by anyone, that the ingredients can be faked, the components pieced together, and the result altogether unimpressive.
The album art for Winter Farewell is absolutely fine. The disc slides from a cardboard case coloured a marbled blue-grey, the gold print set in a tasteful, old-fashioned font. John King's blotty paintings appear here and there - the silhouette of a man with a lowered flag, five Confederate soldiers staring sternly into a daguerreotype lens. Rob Jones' design is to be commended: the disc gives the feeling of something rich and authentic - textured wood and melancholy violin.
Of course, the disc doesn't live up to these expectations. Sure, there's shuffling guitar, shuffling drums, shuffling - slightly trembling - vocals, but for all this shuffling, the music simply doesn't emote. Adam Selzer sounds like a kid's talk-show host muttering fey lyrics, more whine than twang. He's like Stuart Murdoch without the wit, without the sadness; he's Bonnie Prince Billy without the warble and the pain. As "All the Towns Near Boston" one has the inkling of hearing an almost catchy tune - there's even a guitar lick, albeit quiet and acoustic. And yet, submerged under the atmosphering kanoodling of pedal steel and, you guessed it, shuffling percussion, the song is burdened to the point of immobility. I can't help but feel that if Norfolk & Western abandoned their atmospheric pretensions, they could make a pretty good run at the Aislers Set's inoffensive indiepop crown. And I hate the Aislers Set, so I'd love to see N&W kick ass. Here, though, it's almost embarassing. Song after song trudges along, never lifting its feet, dismissing melodies just as they begin to solidify. For all the "sparse, autumn instrumentation", Winter Farewell lacks any true melancholy: it sounds mostly like neutered suburban college students whimpering about lunch money. The most moving part of the entire record is at the beginning of "Sound West", where a violin sings a mournful, evocative tune... Of course, the melody is copped directly from a famous Jewish folk-song, but the average whiny university kid ain't gonna know that, right?
I can't help but be frustrated that a band trying so hard can fail so thoroughly. Norfolk & Western obviously care enough to record this thing - sixteen tracks worth - and yet they are unable to pull their songs together, prick their fingers and communicate something truly meaningful. Sparklehorse and Low use their music to share their aches, to share their balms. There's more to good music than the pace and the tone - there's a beating human heart, and a bruised soul.