November 22nd, 2006 5:33 pm | by JAY HORTON Music | Posted In: Live Cuts

Norfolk & Western at Subterranean in Chicago, Nov. 15, 2006

Norfolk y WesternArriving less than a week after drummer Rachel Blumberg's former group, The Decemberists, sold out a cavernous hall north of the city, Blumberg's new vehicle, Norfolk & Western, attracted a respectable sampling of the indie faithful to Subterranean--a mid-sized, mis-named (rising three stories above street level) venue midst Chicagoland hipster central. There didn't seem to be much of a cross-over, though: While The Decemberists' demographic centered upon the teens and Trixies (that's Chicago slang for womenfolk!) that learned of the band from OC sing-a-longs, this audience likely turned out in response to the glowing coverage from area press. They were curious about the rising buzz but not, perhaps, the most attentive of crowds. "Thanks to those of you who were listening. And those of you who were talking," said Joe Haege, accompanist to opener Corinna Repp, near the end of their set, bitching, but not without reason.

It's a shame more of the crowd didn't refrain from the chatter because the venue—which is low-lit, expansive, lightly-scarred, and comprised of old wood and subtle furnishings, like a pre-war men's club reclaimed by squatters of impeccable taste—was a perfect match for Repp's hypnotic performance. With slow, distored, minimal backing (Haege's plucked guitar, Repp's repetitive piano figures and spasmodic drumming) luxuriating in cranked bass levels, Repp's best numbers directly convey the sensation of unfathomable woe told from the inside. Her voice maintains a breathy quality suggestive less of fragility than a measured weariness, more powerful for all of the aching restraint.

Repp has just released her third album on Portland's Hush Records and has been touring with labelmates Norfolk & Western around the country, but N & W have been edging further and further from the stereotypical (take a wild guess) Hush sound. Their own new album, The Unsung Colony indulges an eclectic, eccentric mish-mash of styles and textures. Fractured chamber pop flows into zydeco, folk or genres hard to define yet weirdly familiar. They are traditionalists preserving an Americana that never was.

The journey's a smooth one, though. At the heart of even the most difficult numbers, lies a songwriter's pop that is never unnecessarily tweaked. Memorable hooks drive experimentations, soaring harmonies transform the, shall we say, lengthier jams, and even the trickiest blends (electroclash Casio plunks above roiling gypsy rhythms) prelude a chorus that should fill ringtones worldwide. Frontman Adam Selzer has a knack for translating hummable tunes through challenging contexts—violin riffs never sound this organic or unpretentious, and the septet's instrumental facility teases orchestral precision and string-band hootenanny with equal flair.

Despite the melancholic tone of much of the music, there's a delicacy, an infectious lightness of touch within the group. The ridiculously-tight cohesion and restraint focuses attention upon individual components, and multi-instrumentalist Peter Broderick's (mandolin, keyboard, saw, gasp—it would be easier to list what he doesn't play, really) digressions emblemize the sense of play. As he picked up a harmonium for the band's cover of a Camper Van Beethoven tune as imagined by an Appalachian string quartet, the crowd smiled beatifically—and, at last, was silent.

Photo: Selzer and Blumberg.
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