Songs in a Northern Key by Varnaline (Review)

Songs in a Northern Key shows an artist at the height of his powers.
Songs in a Northern Key - Varnaline

Keith Richards, the noted guitarist, songwriter, and human repository for all things narcotic once said of songs: “I don’t write em. I think they all float through the air, and if you’re alert enough you could pick one or two up.” When Anders Parker read that in a Bill Flanagan book, he found a songwriting kindred spirit of sorts. Anders Parker’s current masterwork, Songs in a Northern Key, seems to have come from this boundless and mystical nether region where songs begin as “staticky seeds” just floating in the air. Though Parker and Keith are vastly different it’s nice to see that they’re getting their material from the same place — space. And from space Parker has fashioned an album that blends folk, country, and psychedelia, the likes of which hasn’t been heard since Alexander Spence took that schizophrenic motorcycle ride from Bell View to Nashville in 1968.

Parker got his start in the pointless, noise/prog band Space Needle. Once Space Needle ceased to exist, except between the pages of history, Parker began recording as Varnaline. 1996’s “Man of Sin” displayed his ragged aesthetic: blending acoustic songs with loud, raw rock songs — a formula he has become known for. 1997 saw the release of Varnaline’s spartan, heartsick “A Shot and a Beer” EP; its opening track, “Hear the Birds Cry,” showed a stripped down, vulnerable Parker working with his best lyrics and melodies up to that point, setting the standard for a Varnaline song. It took him three releases to surpass that standard, but it is apparent that he finally has, as virtually every track shines on the flawless Songs in a Northern Key.

Parker was saved from college radio purgatory by finding a generous benefactor in Americana’s favorite guitar-slinging jailbird, Steve Earle. Earle signed him to his own E Squared label in 2000, resulting in Parker adding some strongly needed production values to his arsenal. It’s safe to say that Parker wasn’t obsessed with production before, which is fine, we all love Daniel Johnston, but Parker didn’t exactly have the personality to shine through occasionally spotty material. In contrast to his previous recordings, on “Songs” it is apparent he has a vision and the wherewithal to shepherd that vision into a stunning collection.

Parker has assembled an album of loosely tied together songs all born from one, the dreamlike and woozy “Difference.” This is the album’s centerpiece, a paean to the hallucinatory feeling of traveling from waking life into sleep, sober to fucked-up, life into death. Parker himself said the song came to him “one stony night on a frozen lake.” In almost elegiac terms, Parker has penned a reaction to the silly boasting of skin-poppers, Spaceman 3. There’s a weary maturity in his voice when he sings, “the hours wasted here, I could have wasted anywhere.” There’s a flirtation with death that’s almost ponderous: “And on a frozen lake I disappeared and took no shape and fell into a world, so fine.” “Difference” ends in a coda of delayed guitar, glorious white noise, and fire and brimstone preaching courtesy of some televangelist.

The first track, “Still Dream,” opens like Zoot Sims’ “Blinuet” played on an acoustic guitar at the bottom of the sea. Like the Invisible Man in the prologue of Ellison’s book of the same title, the subject lives a sad and lonely life deep down in some dark basement, invisible but still dreaming. The album also has its share of songs where Parker ignores his penchant for acoustic picking and straps on an electric. The best of these is the first single, “Song,” a fuzzy pop number about what else, songs. The epic “Anything From Now” shows some of Parker’s guitar chops in a whacked-out solo, equal parts noise and brevity.

There’s an earthy coldness to many of the tracks like the melancholy “I Don’t Want” which depicts images of overflowing gutters and rotting leaves; the song is filled with the dirt and sweat of the characters who inhabit it. Sleigh bells ring, ambient noise hums and crackles, guitar strings whistle, and then the trademark Spector-esque drum hook breaks the song eventually giving way to a slow, crawling thud. The song ends with a strange unrelated guitar part, awash in tremolo.

If this album doesn’t drag Anders Parker out of the trashcan of rock obscurity I’m afraid nothing will. Songs in a Northern Key shows an artist at the height of his powers. With this album, Parker shows he is truly divorced from any sub-genre that would weaken his claim as one of the best songwriters today. To think all this greatness comes from space or maybe it just comes from the bottle. Wherever it comes from it’s good to know that it’s still out there.

Written by Bryan Price.

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