Norfolk and Western

A Gilded Age

(Hush; 2006)

By Craig Eley | 19 August 2007

I’ve never been able to shake the railroad from my mind. In Pittsburgh, there is a huge railroad bridge that goes across the Parkway West, a disaster of a road that starts in downtown, travels through suburban hell, and eventually leads to the airport. I’d made that airport drive 1000 times before I left for good, and some of those trips were intense: the excitement of picking up an old friend, the thrill of leaving town, the sadness of saying goodbye to a lover, the joy of saying goodbye to a lover. And that bridge, with Norfolk & Western Railway Company bolted to the side, always seemed so damn symbolic. It blankly fit my mood: lonely, proud, tired, amibitious, scared.

But later on the drive, after the Fort Pitt tunnel, and still stuck in traffic, I would think of the bridge’s larger implications. It was a reminder of the prosperity and filth of the town’s steel heritage, a monument to the old dream of transcontinental travel, a symbol of an entire mode of transportation that didn’t quite catch on. It was a testament to the unfulfilled promise of the technology that would unite us all.

On A Gilded Age, Norfolk & Western have finally captured and realized the complications between the romanticized past and the dour present that they have never been able to reconcile on previous releases. Gaining confidence on every record since Rachel Blumberg joined the band, they have reached their peak on this longish EP, blending their art-folk-nostalgia with musical immediacy and relevant themes. Like the bridge that stretched over me, N&W can express both personal ruminations on relationships and the larger contexts of culture, music and history. Questions of technology, war, economics, and, of course, love (Blumberg and frontman Adam Selzer are dating) match with banjos and Theremins to create a Modern yet picturesque scene: a steam engine curling up a mountainside, perhaps.

This nostalgia, and Blumberg’s previous duties as the Decemberists’ drummer, make nods toward that band inevitable, and “Clyde in New Orleans” fits the bill, though Selzer’s vocals in “A Gilded Age” sound more Meloy-esque. Still, there are no pirates attacking A Gilded Age; the most obvious touchstones here are Hem’s nearly-flawless Rabbit Songs and Mercury Rev’s massively flawless Deserter’s Songs. The heart-wrenching country splendor of the former is all over “A Voice Through the Wall,” and the Victrola-sounding aging effects of the latter surface in almost every intro/outro, but most notably in “There Are No Places Left For Us,” an instrumental reminiscent of “I Collect Coins.”

The major flaw here, if you can call it that, is that the album’s two standout tracks are its first two, leaving the second half of the album to lose momentum, sputtering uphill (despite the hey-dig-that-guitar-sound punch of “We Were All Saints”). None of the second half is weak per se, but the opening tracks simply outshine. This is to be expected, I suppose, since they both appeared on last year’s tour-only If You Were Born Overseas, and have been played live for some time. Interestingly, this time around, they both benefit from completely opposite tweaks. “Porch Destruction” was a fine, short number that has been expanded into a moving orchestral ballad, stretched out in both the bridge and the ending to heighten the impact of the final lines, sung in perfect complement by Adam and Rachel: “I know how long it takes / but can you tell me where?” The title track is sped up just a bit, and the overdriven-as-shit guitar (the same one that will appear later on “Saints”) plays a more aggressive role in the opening seconds and chorus. Another gem is “Minor Daughter,” in which we are treated to a rare all female vocal performace.

A Gilded Age, while not necessarily laying new musical tracks, finally sees N&W live up to their heritage that includes work with both the Decemberists and M. Ward. Eliminating the weak spots from previous efforts and bringing in new instrumentation, N&F should enjoy this career high point, looking down on so many who are stuck in the traffic below.