Norfolk and Western – Dusk in Cold Parlours

Norfolk and Western
Dusk in Cold Parlours

Portland, Oregon’s Norfolk and Western are one of those rare bands that transcend the easy genrification of music. Quiet and melancholy, their style can be compared favorably to musicians from Low to Yo La Tengo to Mercury Rev, composing equal parts folk sensibility, Americana storytelling, and indie-rock structure. That’s the true brilliance of Dusk in Cold Parlours: it’s not what you might expect but consistently beautiful and moving.
A large part of that is due to Adam Selzer’s songwriting and his soft yet personal vocals. It helps, too, that the production here is immaculate. Every sound – from Selzer’s hushed-sounding voice to the contributions from banjo, strings, piano, bells, and other assorted instruments I don’t even recognize – is sparklingly clear and beautifully played. And the songs are varied enough, from very quiet and intimate to more upbeat and even rocking at times, with hints of country, folk, and even psychedelia mingled throughout.
The songs here flow beautifully, with beginnings and endings, nicely mixing the softest and most intimate tracks with more upbeat songs so that the whole work has a consistent and well-planned flow. Banjos sparkle the storytelling “A Marriage Proposal,” and gorgeous layering of male and female vocals along with chiming gongs take the quiet “Letters Opened in the Bar” to another level. Big, almost booming drums and bass plus swirling organ give the instrumental “Kelly Bauman” a totally unique feel. The beautiful rhythm section gives “Disappear” the depth the soft song needs, and yet the guitars take over, blazing almost Neil Young-like, in the song’s fantastic climax. The closing, stark “At Dawn or After Dusk” is a fitting bookend, a subtle and short yet fittingly moody ending.
The contrast of styles works beautifully, from the country-style “Terrified,” the slow-core melancholy of “Jealousy, it’s True,” and the almost psychedelic feel of “Oslo,” which wouldn’t sound totally out of place if performed by Mercury Rev. Some songs are more upbeat, like the rather bouncy nature of “The Tired Words,” but even these upbeat songs maintain the band’s hushed and subtle quality. The strings add a gorgeous note to the suitably titled instrumental “A Hymnal,” but the light drums and guitar mix with them nicely, and there’s even some unique studio effects that are dribbled subtly throughout the album but show up here quite well.
Unfortunately, I give Dusk in Cold Parlours the attention it deserved too late to put it on my best-of list for 2003, but it surely deserved a spot. Absolutely beautiful and moving, at times soaring, at times hushed, Dusk is never what you’d expect. Perhaps the band’s most accessible album to date, this is a fantastic work.