Varnaline – Advance and retreat
It was at Lollapalooza that Parker first met Steve Earle, who was doing a one-off show in Texas. They kept in touch afterward, and for years Earle told any reporter who would listen how much he wanted to sign Varnaline. After the demise of Zero Hour, he did. “I’ve been waiting for this band since we started the label,” Earle says now. “I’ve seen Anders perform these songs solo and they hold up. That’s the test.”
Parker otherwise remembers the few years following the release of Sweet Life and the largely unlamented demise of his label as a period of great upheaval. He was living in Brooklyn, bartending at a run-down neighborhood bar, the sort frequented by indie rockers and elderly men, and writing songs on his own.
Most of what would eventually become Songs In A Northern Key was recorded in the wilds of Vermont, upstate New York and Brooklyn, and according to Parker, the record’s scattered recording process is the real reason it’s essentially a solo record. John Parker and Ehrbar appear on a few songs, along with assorted guest stars, but “it was done at weird places and at weird times, so I kind of wound up doing everything myself, but it was because of circumstances beyond our control,” says Parker.
Those circumstances left Parker uncertain that he wanted to — or even should — release the record under the name Varnaline. “I kind of went back and forth with it, but since everything I’ve ever done has been under that name, I just kind of went with it. The band is me right now, and it’s kind of always been my thing, in theory. Half of the records up until now have been just me.”
By the time Northern Key found its way to Earle, the record was essentially finished (though Earle’s producing partner Ray Kennedy helped with the mixing). Earle has thus far provided only occasional suggestions, at one point telling Parker to turn his vocals up. “It had sounded right to me the way it was, but I was mixing it for myself,” says Parker. “When you’re writing it and singing it, you don’t need to hear it, I guess.”
Northern Key is the record Varnaline should have made years ago, an alternately grand and closely contained mid-fi alt-country-rock record; it’s at once cinematic in its imagery and intimate in its feel. It has both a stinging simplicity and a maddening opaqueness, as well as Parker’s usual fondness for weather and nature metaphors. A fifteen-song ode to love, alienation and the outdoors, it recalls both post-Harvest Neil Young and any number of early Grifters records.
Its centerpiece track, “Indian Summer Takedown” (with its central couplet “Standing on the ledge/Where the toes meet the edge/Thinking of that day/When things went right”) is a masterpiece of ambivalence, and a cousin, at least in theme, to a previous Varnaline staple, “Meet Me On The Ledge”.
Tell Parker you can’t decide whether Songs In A Northern Key is a happy record or not, and he sounds pleased. “Me neither. I think it is, in some ways. I feel like it’s a transition piece for some reason. After everything that happened with Zero Hour, and doing a lot of traveling and playing and writing, it was sort of made in this vacuum of change. I felt like there was kind of a renewal in it, in some ways.”
The driving pop-rock gem “Down The Street” may be the new disc’s only unlikely track. Parker describes it as “one of those shut in, paranoia songs, but it almost wound up sounding like Fleetwood Mac, or something weird like that.” It contains an already-scrutinized couplet, “I beat the horse/And killed the band,” which Parker figures he did, in a way. Whether Varnaline as a trio is actually dead or not is anybody’s guess, and given Parker’s ability to make a record like this one without anybody else, it would seem a moot point.
Though Parker insists their problems were external, the last few years of group life were not happy. “We were running around the States for a few years just playing these shows, and some of them were great and some of them weren’t. And people were growing up and they needed to figure out what they were gonna do. We’d been playing together so long, and at a certain point, people have personal lives and other interests that pull them.”
Parker left his home in Brooklyn for Raleigh, North Carolina, soon after the completion of Songs In A Northern Key. He worked days at a sawmill, bartends at night, and does cabinetry work to make ends meet. He’s met musicians he plays with regularly and is forming tentative plans to tour, but won’t rule out a future reunion with his brother and Ehrbar, with whom he remains close. The usual difficulties of touring are compounded by the fact that John Parker now has a son and Ehrbar has a job teaching math in middle school.
It’s easy to see Varnaline’s entire existence as a sound in search of a band, and vice versa. While the on-again, off-again status of the group (as well as the schizophrenic nature of their recorded output) could stand as evidence of Parker’s conflicted, whipsawing ambitions, he says being part of a band is what he has wanted all along, even if things just haven’t worked out that way. “I think initially I was in search of a band, and that was what I wanted. But the reality of it is that it just isn’t happening that way now. I’ve let go of that as an ideal, and I think that’s fine. I can live with that.”
Allison Stewart works for The Man in New York City and still believes black to be a color suited to all occasions.