Norfolk & Western
A Gilded Age EP
ands use the EP format for any number of reasons: to provide a teaser for a new album, to cash in on a few loose tracks, or even to try out something new. On A Gilded Age Norfolk & Western stretch the format to make a solid statement. Containing eight tracks and lasting over 30 minutes, the EP label is a bit of a misnomer, but maybe no one wanted to take the group's developing sound to an album too quickly. On their previous recordings, the band sounded like an abandoned house on the prairie. Now they sound like a crew reclaiming that building. It works more than it misses, but it's not a perfect success.
N&W; has always provided idiosyncratic atmospheres, creating textures that reflect an old-time American feel while simultaneously sounding unique to this band. The group continues to do that, but they employ more aggressive instrumentation. Most notably, Adam Selzer's electric guitar makes frequent forays into the mood. These attacks, along with a more song-focused approach, make A Gilded Age a more typical pop record. While that shift makes for more accessible, as they say, music, it also takes away some of the sharp flavor. It's an easy listen, but not one that leaves N&W; embedded in your memory.
The more straightforward songwriting approach causes some fallout (such as the group's reduction of "musical space" to "quiet places,” a subtle but key difference), but the songs stay enjoyable. The obvious highlight here is "Clyde and New Orleans," where Calexico-inflected music bolsters a smart narrative about divine retribution (in a sense) set among a massive flood in New Orleans. Blending hooks, noise, textures, and solid storytelling, the track showcases N&W; when all their skills cohere smoothly.
The blending comes less skillfully at other times. The title track, for example, contains some bursts of guitar that seem to do little more than acknowledge their own presence. N&W; come close with this number; they approach the kind of noise/pop fusion that Wilco executes well live, but this band just doesn't have its technique down yet. The direction holds promise, though—this effort at a new style will yield some fascinating music.
In the meantime, A Gilded Age stands as a good compromise. Even while it doesn't succeed fully, its explorations remain intriguing and none of the songs fail. An EP (even a long one) is the right vehicle for this sort of experiment. N&W; doesn't settle for just tossing us their lab work—they show us their proofs.