Last week, in time for the release of their A Gilded Age, and just prior to heading out on a West Coast tour, Norfolk & Western principals Adam Selzer and Rachel Blumberg decided to come clean about a naughty little lie they've been spreading. "We decided it wasn't the best thing to leave up there," says Selzer, referring to content on both their Web site and their MySpace page that linked Selzer and his family to the heroic conductors and entrepreneurs of the Norfolk & Western Railroad. "There is the Adam Selzer of today, founder of Norfolk & amp; Western, the band, and the Adam Selzer of then," the bio begins, "... a conductor based in Big Lick, Virginia, (later re-named Roanoke) [who hauled] coal trains across Virginia and West Virginia."
"We thought it was funny and so outlandish that people would realize it was a joke," says Blumberg. People, though, bought the sham wholesale, and assailed the duo with railway questions. The duo would then have to explain that, not only is Selzer unconnected with the railway, he and Blumberg aren't even that into trains. This became a pain in the ass, so the thing about the trains had to come down. And, at the exact instant a certain mild-mannered music journalist was asking Selzer questions about his family history, the latest and perhaps the last dupe of that damned Web site, frequent collaborator and Flash guru Tony Moreno was putting the finishing touches on a new, lie-free Web site. Gone were the lonesome whistles, passenger-car births and boxcar jam-sessions, replaced by rather staid news of their upcoming EP (drops April 11, cop it) and a few words about the grandeur of their "turn-of the-century Victrola gramophone," which the band hauls onstage nightly.
While some may wonder why a music fan would question any bio a band puts up about themselves, N & W's seems, in hindsight, silly. The thing claimed, at one point, that Selzer's grandfather Jeremiah "was murdered by a crazed laid-off train mechanic during the Depression (wherein N & W paid regular dividends and was heralded as a great financial institution during those troubled times)." The band also claimed to travel by train to all their gigs, a notion even the most deluded of Amtrak employees would agree is basically impossible. The absurdity of it all, though, and the wholeheartedness with which people believed it, showcases the myth-making power of pop.
It showcases other things too. When asked if there was even a shred of truth to that bio, Blumberg said that, besides what she called "actual facts regarding the train line," the bio was complete fiction. "It's a good story, though, isn't it?" She does believe, however, that the story points to fundamental truths about the kind of music they make: "I feel like the sense of nostalgia it evokes is certainly true."
Blumberg went on to downplay the nostalgia thing, mentioning how their house is full of "old things" (a sentiment Selzer echoed). Judging by their work, though, their song craft is informed by more than a mere collector's mentality. The music is conversant with the past and infused with the fog of memory. The title speaks volumes by itself -- as does hauling that Victrola around -- but it's not as though they're focused on the past to the detriment of the present. "Clyde in New Orleans" utilizes a doo-wop vibe to evoke the '60s for a song about the murder trial of a Klan member. The pervasive glockenspiel of "We Were All Saints" mingles with Blumberg's chorus adding a childlike whimsy to a song about imploding buildings and lives crippled by office cubicles. The title track is a tale of modern-day robber barons (read: Enron) that centers on the quaint notion of a son-in-law taking over the family energy business. It's about innocence and greed, but not, as we might expect, disillusionment. Though they frequently point to modern social ills, the band frames them in deeply romantic sentiments.
The conceit bears some resemblance to Blumberg's old band, the Decemberists. Though they don't take the liberties with time, place and culture the way Colin Meloy and company do, the yarns Selzer and Blumberg spin on A Gilded Age are just as rich in imagery and metaphor. The haunting, instrumental "There Are No Places Left for Us" juxtaposes the Old Worldiness of the accordion and violin with the novelty of the theremin and playfulness of the upright piano to channel both the streets of Paris and the Ferris wheels of Coney Island. It's nostalgia, but it's free of what might be derided as sentiment. Norfolk & Western aren't blinded or crippled by their love of the past, they're empowered by its lessons, its grace and its sense of scope. The result is a consistently fertile and knowing conversation between eras.
So, although it was run through with flimflammery and deceit, the old bio told us, in many ways, more about Norfolk & Western than their statements of fact. Like the story he wove connecting himself both to a train line and to a series of ancestors who worked it, Selzer and Blumberg are bridging antiquity with modernity one hand-hewn folk-rock song at a time.
Norfolk & Western at the Shop on Wednesday, April 12, at 8 pm. Tickets: $6. Call 534-1647.