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Norfolk & Western – Dusk In Cold Parlours

Dusk in Cold Parlours is very much an example of exceptional expression in song

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Much like the finer things in life, we are often dwarfed by the domineering constructs that has engulfed daily living. It is not so much the skyscrapers and the colossal structures in which we bide most of our time within, but what such assemblage has come to represent: that perhaps we no longer find sanctuary in nature’s silhouette of smaller miracles. True as it may, the ability to watch the futile means of pop culture unfold on big screen televisions while we endlessly consume from the (dis)comfort of our shelters is in some portion, a miracle. And as comical as it is we are so easily able to disconnect from anywhere we choose to do so, it all really is about as important as the inner workings of a celebrity’s house.

So as cultural importance wanes from music’s public eye, fewer listeners find the time to appreciate things that don’t quite move as fast. It has become the very nature of modern civilization, and with the twitch of non-existent attention spans one is likely to miss something great. Modeled with qualities enriching, and stripped of the plastic factory line lifelessness of excess, Adam Selzer started this recording project back in 1998, and it has since blossomed into something wonderful – plump with the inner beauty of an emerging sunshine and long serving grace that could only be overlooked by human error. Like the tranquility of a new born day, Norfolk & Western kindles a richness in being that blossoms in the simplicity of enjoying beautiful weather. From the whispered folksy disposition of “A Marriage Proposal” to the seemingly measureless calm of “Impossible”, Dusk in Cold Parlours is very much like the instrumentation that crafts its framework; pastoral, solemn, evocative, deeply personal and strikingly demure.

Interestingly enough, unlike say Mark Kozelek and his Ghosts of a Great Highway, Selzer tends to avoid a certain grandeur that can familiarize this rustic setting with long and drawn out paths. He instead limits most of Dusk in Cold Parlours to shorter glimpses into some distant utopian plain. Many of the songs are far less stretched in length, and escapes before the air becomes thin. Although it could be said that perhaps he leaves a few with feelings of “works in progress”; but not in such a way that any feel unfinished and/or deficient.

Like the quaint murmur of the unaccompanied “At Dawn or After Dusk” and the similarly subdued “Jealousy, It’s True” – a great deal of the album rests on the soul of Selzer and his guitar. And the closeness in which the songs come across fittingly thrives as the album’s warmest and most genuine trait. Herein lays the album’s sole vulnerability; that perhaps he overestimates the intimacy some listeners are willing to delve into. It is because the album itself, while not overly dramatic, relies on true appreciation of the more subtle concepts and ideas of musical arrangement. With it comes the need for patience, and unfortunately, it seems patience is a virtue practiced very little by the squirmy, fidgety majority. Case in point, the two instrumental tracks (the lush “Kelly Bauman” and the slow building “A Hymnal”) could easily be passed over if one were not to take the time and listen to both. Simply because they are so deep with resonance, and the absence of words means the instruments are to do the talking, and they speak with certain eloquence.

The aforementioned “Impossible” is Selzer at his most telling; a gentle soft spoken reflection coated with a disarming sense of loss and sadness. Akin to the feelings evoked, the music is very much in tone; stirring, unhurried and driven by the echo of throated whispers, soft string-strumming, and long aching contemplation. These moments are meant to be cherished, because they uniquely chart sentiments of a singular person, but are undoubtedly capable of reaching so very many who wish to be present and listen. Dusk in Cold Parlours is very much an example of exceptional expression in song; and for those who do not reap the words of wisdom from renaissance men and high school wise guys determined to take a day off from school – you could very well miss it.

(Hush Records)

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Berwanger – Watching a Garden Die

Josh Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter

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At the height of Vagrant Records’ early success in the late 90s, the label was buoyed by the incredible draw of their two biggest names- The Get Up Kids and Saves the Day. And while those two bands took a chunk of the notoriety, there were plenty of great bands that called the label home. One of those bands was The Anniversary. The Lawrence, Kansas band shared musical similarities with both TGUK and Saves the Day, but were unafraid to branch off into slightly more synthesised terrain that gave their songs an added element. Coupled with their super easy to digest harmonies and fantastic male/female vocals, songs like “The D in Detroit” still has a place in countless “favorite playlists” all these years later.

Since their initial break-up, guitarist and vocalist Josh Berwanger has been busy writing and recording a bevy of music under the moniker Berwanger. His recent discography is a talented kaleidoscope of songs that traverse genres from folk and indie, to more rock and straight forward singer/songwriter fare. There was plenty to like on his 2016 album Exorcism Rock, an album that delved into a little bit of psychedelia and fuzzed out indie rock. His 2017 album And the Star Invaders saw a gradual move away from the more electrified to the imaginative kind of singer/songwriter we’ve seen from the likes of Devendra Banhart. True to form, Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter, and his latest, Watching A Garden Die, is the next chapter in his thriving songwriter cabinet.

The gloomily titled record is mostly upbeat and diverse. While he may have shown a kinship to indie/folk songwriting of the Banharts and Obersts of the world previously, Watching a Garden Die features the kind of seasoned and more classic toned work you’d find on a Crosby, Stills & Nash record, or even a Paul Simon record. Songs like the softly, almost whispered “Even the Darkness Doesn’t Know”, and quietly moody, introspective “Paper Blues” (until that electric guitar solo hits) harks back to a time long ago of unfettered hair and soulful folk music. The album’s best moment is probably a combination of the wistful, pedal-steel toned Americana of “When I Was Young” and the equally effective, spacey indie rock of “The Business of Living”. The latter giving Grandaddy a run for their money in that music department. These two songs in particular showcase an artist fully aware and capable of his abilities to craft music that’s personal but exhibits the kind of draw you want from a record this close to the heart.

The album doesn’t have the more ruckus moments Berwanger exhibited in his earlier work (outside of perhaps, the more upbeat power-pop, new wavy “Bad Vibrations”). At times the album takes just a few listens to grab you. But when you listen to songs like the spritely “Friday Night” and the somber reflection of the twangy “I Keep Telling Myself” a few times more, you find the depth of the record. There are elements that reveal themselves on the second, third, fourth listen, and that’s rewarding.

Berwanger’s songwriting ability was never in doubt, and his new material continues to expand his songwriting reach. Watching a Garden Die, while not a frantic effort, is quiet composure.

(Wiretap Records)

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Fences – Failure Sculptures

Failure Sculptures is a steady outing

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Christopher Mansfield, under his alter-ego, Fences, has made himself well known through the collaborations with Macklemore and Tegan & Sara. It’s set him up with well-deserved excitement for his new album Failure Sculptures. The genre of pop scores a good reputation with artists like Fences. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize this album as pop, but Failure Sculptures has catchy songs that will appeal to a large scale, however it keeps the integrity of accomplished music. Each song provides a story that allows you to drift into your own thoughts. He also uses idioms like there is no tomorrow.

“A Mission” is a lower-toned song that launches the album with an echoing sound of voice and guitar, and it sets an example of the whimsical type of music that is shown throughout the album. Mansfield has a way with words and was definitely listening in English class. A+ for storytelling. OK, you twisted my arm, I’ll point out some idioms: “body sways like trees in a storm” sung in “Paper Route” and “lately I just pass by like a cloud” heard in “Brass Band”. It’s a great way to paint a picture in your listeners head.  

“Same Blues” exposes a folk side to Fences. It has a lovely addition of cello in the background. It is enchanting and flows so well, which makes a terrific inclusion to the album. The plucking and acoustic sound of “Wooden Dove” has a powerful effect, and suits the song well. It follows the theme of echoes and storytelling. Although “War Kid” is a song about divorce, it is a pleasant way to end the album, and it features more idioms; “tears falling like bombs“.

This type of music allows you to drift and flow in and out of your own thoughts. It’s a friendly haunting and emotionally driven set of songs (and don’t forget about the idioms), and while it is quite predictable in a pleasant way, Failure Sculptures is a steady outing.

(GRNDVW)

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