A Weathered Sheen

Touring in support of a brand-new EP, Norfolk & Western sound old and new at the same time

Gilt is a potent metaphor. It is the patina, the gold-like flake covering an art object, illuminated manuscript or piece of furniture. Most of the time, it's not even gold plating; it's a paper-thin material that looks like gold but can be rubbed or chipped off as an object ages.

Gilding is an illusion of glamour or opulence that also connotes a rather old-fashioned elegance. The nostalgic symbol of a weathered surface sheen is conjured both by the music and the title of A Gilded Age, the new recording by the Portland, Ore., band Norfolk & Western.

The new record was released earlier this week, and a day later, Norfolk & Western embarked on a concert tour that will bring them to Tucson this Monday night, April 17, at Plush.

Norfolk & Western started in 1998 as a one-man project of Portland musician, songwriter and recording engineer Adam Selzer. Eventually, the project became a band, releasing four records so far, including the 2003 CD Dusk in Cold Parlours, which received rave reviews in the country's independent-music circles.

A Gilded Age--described by Norfolk and Western's publicist as a long-form EP--runs eight songs and 32 minutes. Its music sounds like a mash-up of pre-World War II folk and blues, and 21st-century indie rock. With instruments such as banjo, viola, trumpet, musical saw and an actual Victrola vying for attention amid Selzer's washes of guitar distortion, it feels old and new at the same time.

"That's definitely the intention," said Selzer last week by phone from his Type Foundry studio, where he produced and engineered the new EP.

"I always wanted to have a bridge between the old and the new. I've always liked that old-time, nostalgic feel in music, but I definitely like playing a lot of distorted guitar."

Selzer writes songs that feel as if they are well-worn stories--short fiction or oral history, even--that recount small but potent tales of human struggle and triumph, such as "Porch Destruction" or "A Voice Through the Wall." Listening to the moving "Clyde and New Orleans," a tale of life in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it's easy to understand Selzer's attraction to short stories.

"I'm definitely into fiction. Lately, the lyrics have drifted more toward narrative. On previous albums, they tended to be a little more abstract, but on A Gilded Age, each one is definitely about something.

"And in the CD booklet, for each song, I've written a little paragraph describing it, sort of stating what it's about. I wanted to provide the settings for these songs."

The funny thing is, a lot of listeners have told Selzer that they think his short descriptions are the song lyrics. He chuckled, saying, "I guess it looks like they would be the lyrics because of the way they are typeset, but if you listen to the songs, the paragraphs I wrote are nothing like the lyrics."

Norfolk & Western (Selzer prefers the ampersand to a spelled-out "and") is not the intersection of two streets, as I assumed, but the name of an old railroad line in 19th-century Virginia, Selzer said.

"When I first started to do recordings in 1998, I had a picture of an old train, and I knew I wanted to use that photo for the cover. When someone asked me what the name of the project was, I looked at that picture, with the 'Norfolk & Western,' and said that was it. It just kind of stuck."

Among the collaborators who played with Selzer on his first project was singer-songwriter M. Ward. Eventually, Selzer assembled a full band, the core of which includes former Decemberists drummer Rachel Blumberg, who plays drums and keyboards and sings a little. The couple still plays in Ward's band, he said.

Rotating players in the Norfolk & Western bullpen included Tony Moreno (guitar, banjo, accordion, found sounds), Amanda Lawrence (viola), Dave Depper (bass, vocals, piano), Cory Gray (trumpet, piano) and Peter Broderick (violin, banjo, saw, mandolin, theremin and accordion).

The lineup for the current tour is Selzer, Blumberg, Depper and Broderick. The band will be playing material from A Gilded Age and Dusk in Cold Parlours, some older tunes and maybe a few off the next album, which Selzer said is half-finished and will be released in October.

Considering the elaborate instrumentation of Norfolk & Western's recorded songs, it's pretty clear that the versions performed in concert will be stripped down, with the patina slightly rubbed off.

But Selzer attests to enjoying the challenge of rebuilding an arrangement for a live setting.

"We decided in rehearsals what are the essential elements in each song and went from there. Live, you're also getting a visual element that you don't get on recordings. You don't need to have all that other (musical) stuff going on when you're playing live.

"Speaking of which, we're going to have video projectors, showing short films while we play. So there's going to be that whole aspect of it."

Now in his mid-30s, Selzer is like a lot of listeners of a certain age, in that he's becoming less interested in seeking out new bands and musical artists. For the most part, Selzer has no idea how Norfolk & Western compares to other bands in contemporary independent music.

"I don't really seek out a lot new music. I'm working in the studio so much that when I am not working or making music, I do not really listen to that much music. If someone I respect says I should check this CD or that band out, 'It's really good,' I will. But it's not like I'm scouring the Internet, finding new music.

"We're trying to make music we want to hear and play, and hopefully, people will like it."

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