Songs in a Northern Key
Varnaline•s fourth full-length record and first for E-Squared finds Anders Parker playing most of the instruments himself. He does get a little help from regular Varnaline contributors like drummer Jud Ehrbar and bassist John Parker. And E-Squared•s resident production team of Steve Earle and Ray Kennedy added their sonic touch to (Anders) Parker•s basic tracks. But for the most part, Songs in a Northern Key is an intensely personal disc of melancholy songs that seem at one with nature, memory and loss.
•Well you were just a broken toy/A burned out house with no more joy,• Parker sings on the chiming, R.E.M.-like •Down The Street.• The brilliant •Indian Summer Takedown• offers lines like •Too far gone/How can you go on?• And •I Don•t Want• is all sleigh bells and tinkle-y vibes as he sings, •Well happiness is overrated/Expectation always crashed on takeoff/You were always there and good to go.•
Parker contrasts pretty finger-picked guitar with squalling feedback, adding echo to his vocals that make them seem otherworldly. Parker has one of those voices like J. Mascis or Stephen Malkmus that seems key-challenged on occasion. And he sounds a bit like Jay Farrar on •Blue Flowers on the Highway,• though not quite as mumbly.
Songs like the hauntingly pretty •Difference• seem to float in across the transom. According to the liner notes, it was that song that provided the seed for the rest of the album, conceived as it was on a frozen lake in Vermont. The ruminative, accordion-backed •Blackbird Fields• is hypnotic, moody, and filled with regret. Parker and Company rock a bit harder on tunes like •Song• and •Anything From Now,• which sports a Guided By Voices-like melody that reveals Varnaline•s own lo-fi pop origins. •Green Eyed Stars• builds up a good head of rock steam as well, albeit under a spacey gauze and •Let It All Come Down• moves from gently thrumming to pounding and grinding.
Songs in a Northern Key is not an easy record to digest in one listen. It•s better to get lost in its contours over an extended period of time. And Parker•s artistic vision can provide some obtuse and confounding lyrical moments. But the record•s beauty and mystery do reveal themselves eventually. So listen to it the next time you•re on a frozen lake in Vermont or after your next soul-shattering breakup. Hell, life•s too short. Listen to it right now.