Norfolk & Western

Centralia

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    9
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AllMusic Review by

Norfolk & Western seized upon and surpassed on the wonderful Centralia every good quality that creaked from their initial effort. Former one-man band Adam Selzer enlisted a consistent cadre of friends, and this "cast" was able to create a wholly realized album in a way that Selzer alone couldn't on the intriguing but sketchy A Collection Of. Norfolk & Western is not quite yet a proper band here. Selzer still wrote all the tunes and played a roomful of instruments, including all of them on two songs ("My Ambiguity Frustrates" and "Her Fond Creation True," though the former is really just a fragment). Matthew Ward (an excellent solo artist himself under the nom de troubadour M. Ward), however, is almost an equal partner in performance, and several other players make exquisite contributions, especially Amanda Lawrence, whose viola provides a poignant orchestral element to several songs (not least on the two most gorgeous, "The Absence of Photographs" and the breathtaking duet "Take Off Your Diamonds"). This is not to imply that Centralia is any less downbeat or bleak, because it continues to sustain both those moods. There is little doubt that N & W represents sad-sack, lonely music for those gray (or even darker) days of the soul. The album continued to employ tape machine snippets, recorded bits of cozy apartment assemblages, and objets d'lo-fi, in addition to extensive solo acoustic strumming and melancholy, Elliott Smith-like vocals just a decibel or two above a whisper. But these are all utilized in support of songs rather than as set-pieces themselves. And the production, while still frayed around the edges, is considerably more polished, giving the recording an extraordinarily warm and organic sound, full of added instrumental color and texture -- subtle touches of organ, piano, and keyboard; bursts of harmonica; and spectral lap steel guitar rippling against drowsy soundscapes and tape loops like lazy Pacific waves. But above all, this is an extremely strong set of songs -- folk songs transformed into shimmering epics juxtaposed against haunting, lustrous instrumentals -- a frequently stunning progression in sustained temperament, tone, and consequence.

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