Step right up folks, the indie-folk scene is rolling into your town like those medicine-show carnivals of yore. Look across the hay-strewn lot: M. Ward is the snake-oil peddler; the Decemberists, the bearded lady; Devendra Banhart, the chicken-head-eating freak. What does that make Norfolk and Western? Judging from the band's acclaimed fourth album, 2003's Dusk in Cold Parlours, disc that crackled like an AM radio sending out sullen to precious songs, I would say the dynamic role of flea circus is most befitting.
Dusk in the Cold Parlours is widely considered the Portland, Oregon band's best and most accessible release. And on the follow-up EP, A Guilded Age, accessibility is again the name of the game. Adam Selzer's songwriting remains at the forefront, but this time it is more accompanied and arranged with more pop than fans might be used to. The EP's best track is probably its most upbeat; "Clyde and New Orleans" is all aflutter with trumpets, keys and sweet girlie backing vocals from drummer Rachel Blumberg. Selzer's words don't get buried, though, and on "Clyde and New Orleans" he gets gonzo, blending current and past events with fiction, all in a pox on those who choose "God's word" over reason. The release's other stand out, "There Are No Places Left for Us," is far from poppy. It uses a haunting sample from legendary bluesman Skip James as the only vocalizing in a dirge of viola, accordion and piano.
A Guilded Age is a strong proclamation from a band looking for elbow room in the suddenly mega-fashionable indie-folk scene. Selzer and Blumberg might lay the cutesy factor on a little thick at times, but their excellent musicianship and lyrical gifts make this a worthwhile EP.
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