Ice Ice Baby
Midway through our phone interview, a stranger approaches Varnaline's Anders Parker, who was talking on a crackling cell phone in Denton, where he's rehearsing with Centro-matic, both his backing band and opening act for this tour. The stranger asks him for directions.
"I'm not from here," Parker says. "I don't know. Sorry."
It's a response he must have given a lot over the last 12 months. It's been a "Is this Tuesday or Iowa?" kind of year for Parker, who has toured in support of Songs in a Northern Key through the fall and into the winter.
But if Parker can't tell people in Denton, Texas, where to go, it's easy to hear where Songs came from. (Hint: It's the compass point mentioned in the title.) According to notes Parker posted on the band's Web site, "the staticky seeds" of the album were inspired by the groans of a frozen lake thawing "one stoney night" in northeastern Vermont.
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Parker represents the lake's moans with walls of reverb and wails of feedback and writes evocative though sometimes opaque lyrics to match. The album is framed by the figurative music-box beauty of opener "Still Dream" and closes with a few strains of Brahms's "Lullaby and Goodnight" played on a real music box. In between, the record rises through the stomping "Song" and the longing "Indian Summer Takedown" to the plateau of the majestically cinematic ballad "Blackbird Fields." After the slide-guitar-driven "Blue Flowers on the Highway" and a brief crazy-legged instrumental, an abrupt guitar arpeggio announces "Difference," lyrically the album's thematic centerpiece, which closes with a few words from Dr. Gene Scott, short-wave radio's weirdest pastor. Songs' overall effect sounds like a color: white moonlight reflected off a glacier and bouncing back blue.
Though Varnaline (rhymes with gasoline) is technically a band, lately it's been more of a one-man show. Parker alone wrote all the songs but one, which he co-wrote with bandmate Jud Ehrbar. Parker also played virtually every instrument on Songs, save for Ehrbar's acoustic bass here and there, other brief instrumental contributions by John Parker and Dean Jones, and two vocals by Kendall Jane Meade of the indie band Mascott. The rest is just a solo attempt to tune out the static made by the ice breaking.
But -- and he warns interviewers about this on his Web site -- he doesn't like to talk, write or even have anyone else write about his creative process. Citing the Elvis Costello equation, "writing about music is like dancing about architecture," Parker writes that he would "rather do a fucking jig about the Flatiron building" than write about his own music. But to preempt a bunch of repetitive questions about that shifting ice in Vermont, he'll do it anyway.
His irritation shows plainly enough when he is inevitably asked again by this writer about the frigid New England lake. "Yeah, it's a pretty big thing," he says, audibly stifling a yawn that all but says "Next."
Beyond that vague notion, he doesn't know or want to say where his songs come from. He's of the Keith Richards school that believes great songs come mostly from out of a (possibly chemically induced) clear blue sky. "Most songwriters will try to emulate somebody or steal," Parker says. "They'll cop to stealing from people. With this record I tried to leave all that out, at least consciously. My conception was for the whole record to have a flow, so it exists in one piece. I wanted it to have blurry edges so the beginnings and ends weren't so cut-and-dried, but keep it so there were definitely distinct songs in there. In that way it sort of relates to the psychedelic era."
As does the most recent output of Steve Earle, whom Parker characterizes as his "buffer" from his own musical excesses and his "A&R guy." It's easy to see why Earle likes Varnaline. Like the heroin on which he was once so famously hooked, the album may not grab you at first, but give it time and it will. Earle provided "additional bonsai production" for Songs, which was released on his E-Squared label. "He believes," says Parker. "I guess that's the biggest compliment I can say. I just feel like he's behind me. I wouldn't say we come totally from the same type of thing, but I am really into a lot of the people that he was influenced by. So on a songwriter level, he's somebody I really admire."
No, Parker doesn't sound much like Earle at all. Varnaline is a twang-free band. And no matter how many faux-Eastern swirls shroud Earle's music, all he has to do is open his mouth for the San Antonio of his youth to come out. Parker may now live in the South (Raleigh, North Carolina, to be exact), and he may be lumped occasionally and erroneously into the ever more amorphous alt-country genre, but his accent is American neutral and the music on Songs comes from a land where there's a snow shovel in every garage and tire-chains in every salt-rusted car trunk.
But it's plain from Earle's most recent Transcendental Blues and the proto-psychedelic vibe of Varnaline's Songs that both men have a serious Beatles jones, especially that 1965-66 version of the Fab Four that released Rubber Soul and Revolver. In fact, Parker cites the Beatles as "definitely my top all-time influence," before quickly saying that he hopes Songs is free of any influence at all.
Other, that is, than the wintry lake he doesn't want to talk about.
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