Just before the turn of the 20th century, the Lumière brothers frightened audiences with moving pictures of oncoming trains. Later, The Great Train Robbery became the first narrative film produced in America, laying the tracks for railroad films like Jean Renoir's 1938 classic La Bête Humaine, the Alfred Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest (1959), and even the stowaway buddy comedy Scarecrow (1973).
Follow this train of thought through the dark tunnel ahead, and you just might end up in The Unsung Colony, the new album by Norfolk & Western. Headquartered in Portland, Ore., the band has concocted a way of making movies without cameras. When he's not touring with M. Ward or recording countless other bands, bandleader Adam Selzer gathers cast and crew at his Tape Foundry Recording studio to frame images from sounds.
But, like most movies, The Unsung Colony is far more interesting than its production history. While traversing miraculous soundscapes, the album has a narrative focus on tiny, inter-personal threads that tie into a frayed historical context and push its story beyond the confines of a "period piece."
Flickering to life with "The Longest Stare," the concept begins to take shape: a meta-saga of art imitating an imitation of life. For the opening scene, Norfolk & Western decorates the set with a string quartet hung over a backdrop of fluttering mellotron, chimes and mandolin. Selzer negotiates the composition of each song like a cameraman, eagle-eyeing the angles for the best possible take.
Rachel Blumberg meters out the pace on tympani and vibraphone, giving continuity to every cut, while Selzer makes each tempo change function like a splice. Theremin sounds spread over long shots of the horizon when violins intrude with a cutaway to blaring trumpets and intimate close-ups. Fade out. Fade in on the next scene.
Norfolk & Western projects different layers of history onto the same sonic screen -- an assemblage of settings past and present. From what sounds like the inside of a Victrola, Selzer narrates the action without dictating it. He sings the story's exposition in a soft lilt, composing shapely folk images before texturing them with oblique symbols like "champagne celebrating lies" and "polka dots and moonbeams." A sentimental critique of our country's ongoing patriotic conquests, "The New Rise of Labor" takes you on a sepia-toned rollick through the dust that still settles after the gold rush.
After performing intermission homage to Italian composer, Nino Rota, The Unsung Colony unfolds into an ethereal Western. While Peter Broderick's saw gently weeps, Selzer's guitar reverberates between the stars, illuminating the Foley-artistry of his soundscapes. As another tunnel approaches and the tracks run out on The Unsung Colony, Norfolk & Western derails the story back into the projection booth and turns on the lights. Roll credits.
Norfolk & Western 7 p.m. (doors at 6 p.m.). Thu., Nov. 16. Club Café, 56-58 S. 12th St., South Side. $8 ($10 day of show). 412-431-4950 or www.clubcafelive.com