The Unsung Colony begins and ends with the sound of film threading through a projector -- a perfect effect to bookend songs that play out like scenes from old home movies and carry commensurate emotional weight. The record's wistful melodies breathe life into memories whose fading edges belie their power over us, and the narratives give voice to characters too reserved or thoughtful to be heard above the narcissistic rabble that dominates modern culture. It may strike some as quaint to consider the power of memory and history in this age of instant analysis, but this is no nostalgia act. Norfolk & Western may incorporate gramophones and banjos into their music, quote the Beatles and prefer to tour by train, but The Unsung Colony's message couldn't be timelier: understanding only comes through genuine reflection.
Will anyone hear or heed the message? Let's hope so, because The Unsung Colony's myriad subtle strengths add up to something quite grand and beautiful. This sonic gem builds on the more assured full-band sound Adam Selzer's been assembling since Norfolk & Western's humble beginning as his solo project in 1998. Working with the same ten-piece band that graced their excellent EP, A Gilded Age, Norfolk & Western don't so much expand their audio palette as polish it to a brilliant sheen. The Unsung Colony isn't a concept record, but so solid thematically and musically that it transcends the pitfalls that typify that genre -- much like a collection of great short stories can feel as coherent as a novel. Even the sequencing suggests everything is where it should be, with songs that couldn't fit together better in any other configuration. The instrumental smorgasbord never feels tacked-on or flashy, as each glittering detail serves both the songs and the stories, from the 30 seconds of muted trumpet playing "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" at the end of "The Shortest Stare" to the ukulele that drives "The New Rise of Labor."
The songs show off Norfolk & Western's sonic diversity by recalling current like-minded peers or directly quoting from the band's favored predecessors. It's an approach that bears out The Unsung Colony's thematic contention by uniting past and present. Opening with elegant piano chords, "The Longest Stare" surges forward behind Selzer's shimmering guitar and Rachel Blumberg's marching snare until it reaches the bridge and breaks into squalls of controlled feedback. It's a contrast that Norfolk & Western use judiciously to create tension throughout the record. The song emerges at the next verse with a Mellotron quote from the opening of the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever," then regains momentum for a swelling crescendo reminiscent of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" from Abbey Road. It's a memorable outro, built on ascending guitar lines, full-bodied cello and viola bows, and a synth wash that trails along like an eraser until the song suddenly vanishes mid-measure. The band then plunges into an up-tempo "The Shortest Stare," with Selzer reflecting on how much even casual glances can reveal: "We were both reading Leviathan/Not necessarily your best seller," he sings in a voice that sounds like an American version of Mojave 3's Neil Halstead. Selzer's guitar again alternates between warm octaves and summer storms of feedback, but the loping meter and vibraphone echo the high-plains drama of Pinetop Seven or Calexico (whose Joey Burns appeared on Norfolk & Western's previous full-length, 2003's Dusk in Cold Parlors). "Drifter" shares a similar dusky patina, with Peter Broderick's elaborate string arrangements augmented by yearning pedal steel lines.
But the record's sonic influences extend beyond than that. "Barrels on Fire" is chamber pop at its best, the string quartet buttressing the voices of Selzer and Blumberg, whose gossamer harmonies are among Norfolk & Western's most effective traits. "How to Reel In" is a Sufjan Stevens-like lament that features only Broderick's banjo, saw and violin as the trellis for Selzer's coming-of-age tale. Subtlety may be one of their strengths, but they're also capable of raw power. The guitar tempest that opens "The New Rise of Labor" thunders out of the gate like a lost track from M. Ward's Post-War -- it's not a leap to imagine, since Norfolk & Western are the back-up band for Ward in the studio and on his recent tours. "Arrangements Made," which suggests that air travel is simply lugging your metaphoric baggage around and not really traveling at all, begins with the sort of synth-soundscape and piano mix found on Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, before trumpet heralds and Blumberg's timpani and cymbal crashes return the song to more organic roots. The influence of Blumberg's old band can be heard on "Banish All Rock," a stomping gypsy waltz that sounds like the Decemberists and Tom Waits tossed into a blender. An exotic foreign feel also colors the records' two instrumentals: "Rehearsing La Dolce Vita" is a solo accordion interlude you'd hear at the Trevi Fountain in Rome, while "Atgetz Waltz" is a between-the-wars, Left Bank dance that erupts into full-orchestra serenade with glockenspiel, saw, euphonium, trumpets, mandolin, marimba and accordion creating a melodious racket. Before the record ends with the muted reprise of the opening cut, Selzer ties together all of the themes on"From the Interest of Few." Over a gentle, vibes- and pedal steel-driven gait, Selzer compares his father's stories from the late '60s with the modern Bush II era, lamenting the current lack of a "common cry" and the media's Orwellian role in marginalizing voices that might otherwise be raised together in protest. "We're caught in a trap that leads us toward the TV telling our story," Selzer sighs, ending with a thought many Americans may have considered as they've been pushed to the sidelines, "What if we were born overseas."
It's often said of esoteric records that each listen reveals more. But if ever a recording that didn't require a PhD in musicology could be said to continually surprise a listener, this is it. The Unsung Colony is painstakingly crafted but also elegantly simple, as familiar and welcoming as it is new and exhilarating. And that makes it one of the most rewarding listens of this or any year.