The best ideas come out at night. Cold weather can also serve as a muse of sorts, as you retreat into yourself and use deep thoughts for insulation. Songwriter Anders Parker--the only constant over Varnaline's five-release career--conjured Songs in a Northern Key on an icy Vermont night, doubling the inspiration potential. Most writers are content to use a frozen lake as a metaphor; Parker gave birth to this record while standing on a frozen lake. It's an image that fits with what appears to be one of the major themes of the album: trying to grab onto a little something when surrounded by a whole lot of nothing.
One of Northern Key's many resonating lines comes from the Neil Young-ish (and Young-quoting) "Indian Summer Takedown": "Standing on the edge/Where the toes meet the edge/Thinking of that day/When things went right." The song captures that late-night moment when bleakness threatens to turn into wholesale surrender, but you try to just hang on until morning. It's a recurring mood that turns up later on the lovely, sleigh-bell visited "I Don't Want" (fellow Young disciple Jay Farrar is the comparison for this one), where Parker sings: "Happiness is overrated/Expectations crashed on takeoff/But you were always there and good to go." And "Broken Song" even manages to turn a dance floor into a haunted place, all while approximating a country waltz.
Parker, a Poughkeepsie, N.Y. native now living in Raleigh, captured most of what became Northern Key under relatively bare-bones conditions in Vermont, Upstate N.Y. and Brooklyn, with only a bit of Twangtrust mixing help at the end. The results offer a surprising symphonic sweep for an album created under DIY circumstances, with moments--most notably "Anything From Now," which sound like they're soaring through a field of friendly static--that back up all of the "Moody Blues as an indie-roots band" references that peppered reviews of Varnaline's last album, Sweet Life. Northern Key also brings to mind fellow alt-country fringe-dwellers Sparklehorse in both feel and execution: If Sparklehorse is Pink Floyd as produced by Alan Lomax (rather than Alan Parsons), then Varnaline is Pink Floyd at Big Pink.
Try this one out at 2 a.m. first. Albums born in the wee hours play better at that time as well. (A recent listen late on a full-moon night really brought it home for me.) The thermostat setting is your call.