FOREWORD: I knew Varnaline frontman Anders Parker pretty well since his days with Jud Ehrbar in cosmic New York-via-Providence prog-rock experimentalists, Space Needle. I saw them play Mercury Lounge, Knitting Factory, and Brownies within a year-and-a-half.
Varnaline was a roots-y singer-songwriter (side) project for Parker, who succeeded in mixing up contemplative laid-back orchestral wanderings with guitar-driven Crazy Horse-inspired moments. Before seeing him open up a show at Irving Plaza for Mark Lanegan, I interviewed the ‘bearded one’ to promote ‘98s nifty Sweet Life.
The last album he did under the pseudonym, Varnaline, ‘02s Songs In A Northern Key, really captured the essence of his honey-hushed baritone in soothingly lush, low key settings.
Since then, Parker’s released a few solo discs, such as ‘04s Tell It To The Dust (reviewed below interview), ‘05s The Wounded Astronaut, and a self-titled ’06 album. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Varnaline began as a home-taping venture for transgressive upstate New York roots-rock multi-instrumentalist Anders Parker in the early ‘90s. Moving to Brooklyn hasn’t altered the gloomy solitude of Parker’s elliptical rural introspections and endearing nocturnal dramatics. Sweet Life combines the modest, heartfelt acoustic intimacy of backwoods-y 6-song EP A Shot And A Beer with the expansive rhapsodic flurries of ‘97s Varnaline and ‘96s Man Of Sin debut.
Sweet Life’s autumnal “Gulf Of Mexico,” silky orchestral, “Northern Lights,” and dirge-y diatribe, Now You’re Dirt” open the valiant set with splendid conviction. “All About Love” recalls In The Court Of The Crimson King more than the downtrodden “Saviors” (featuring trombonist Dean Jones) hints at The Band’s “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.”
Based on a Viet Nam vets rants, “Fuck & Fight” hedges against narcissistic ‘60s hippie lifestyles, and is a companion piece to the Moody Blues-ish “Tonite.” Written after a long night of partying, the poignant “Mare Imbrium” uses the moon as its referential metaphor.
Auxiliary members Jud Ehrbar (ex-Space Needle partner and Reservoir pilot) and John Parker (Anders’ brother) have now been installed as permanent fixtures for Varnaline’s current tour opening for Bob Mould.
Why’d you decide to move to Brooklyn from Upper New York?
ANDERS: My girlfriend lives in Brooklyn and I decided to move in with her. There’s a lot more people here and it’s close to Manhattan where something is always going on. But I can’t see living here forever. I like to go outside and not walk on concrete all the time. That doesn’t mean I want to live in a cave.
What musical artists inspired you as a kid?
ANDERS: Definitely the Beatles. Also, ‘50s rock and the Beach Boys I liked. My parents always had their records around. They were born in the ‘30s/ ‘40s, but they like the fact John and I cultivated our urge to get into the arts. They listened to the radio a lot. There’s still a stack of records at their house. My dad played guitar and piano. He went to school in the early ‘60s and liked folk revival stuff by Kingston Trio and the Weavers.
What instruments did you learn first?
ANDERS: I played saxophone in elementary school and drums in high school. After moving around, going to a few colleges, I realized music was the only thing I wanted to do. It meant so much to me.
Sweet Life seems to be more dynamic and better integrated than Varnaline’s first few releases.
ANDERS: It’s a more rounded record. It’s my version of a pop record. There were a lot of songs floating around, but these seemed to flow best. I demoed the songs extensively beforehand. There’s always work to be done. Each song has its own separate identity.
“Gulf Of Mexico” would probably sound good in the background of a dramatic movie. Would you consider soundtrack work?
ANDERS: It’s a very visual song. I wrote that while driving my car from upstate to Brooklyn. I liked the way the words sounded. It’s loosely about a person who’s waiting for everything to fall apart – possibly while that person is on a raft.
Do your songs deal with personal accounts or are they fictional characterizations?
ANDERS: It varies. It could be personal or something I overheard. Sometimes a sentence or a line inspires me.
Why title the album Sweet Life? That closing song is a sonic departure from the other tracks.
ANDERS: It encompasses some of the mood and it has some definite irony. Sweet Life was also the name of an upstate grocery store’s cheap brand of food which I subsided on up there.
“This Is The River” and “Underneath The Mountain” seem inspired by some of those rural upstate surroundings.
ANDERS: “Underneath The Mountain” was indirectly inspired by the movie Under The Volcano. It was about a drunk English guy at the end of his life and the frustrations he felt. I was thinking of how life is always on top of you. “This Is The River” was written right before we went into the studio. If you take away the production, it’d be like a folk-blues tune. I had this view of the river where people were swimming in a vaguely childlike imagery.
How does Sweet Life differ from previous Varnaline albums?
ANDERS: We got the opportunity to work in a great studio. The sounds of the instruments came out so well. Also, I used some of my folkier stuff with my rockier stuff. When we started out, we were more of a rock band. After doing this awhile, we brought in some acoustic ideas that were lying around but needed to be worked on. Sweet Life has more instrumentation and a more dynamic range. John plays upright bass and keyboards and we combine elements from the EP with elements from the first two albums. John Agnello was a great engineer who captured the sound we wanted. We talked to him about getting the full sound out of each individual instrument. Agnello had good ears and instinct. We felt we had a common language with him, and we were able to communicate with him well and trust him.
Anders Parker’s honeyed baritone isn’t far removed from Lou Barlow’s creamy hum, verbalizing hard won small victories, pent-up frustration, and itchy desperation in festering meditative verses. Thankfully, neither ‘newly coined’ soloist feels helplessly destitute or perilously distraught despite being overlooked by myopic mainstream nitwits while perched on an ever-narrowing limb in search of wider cult support.
An existential theme seems to bookend Parker’s Tell It To the Dust, going from the “built to rust” absolution of the scintillating title track (startlingly climaxing like Pink Floyd’s automaton “Welcome To The Machine”) to the blustery fuzz-toned mantra “Doornail (Hats Off To Buster Keaton).” The latter blasts Neil Young-endorsed 6-string distortion into a blistering liberation.
Between, Parker tailors accessible serenades such as calm bequeath “Goodbye Friend,” anticipatory organ-laced spellbinder “Something New,” and compassionate commiserate “Don’t Worry Honey, Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.” On dirge-y sad-eyed lament “Innocents,” Parker’s clear conscience allows him to assuredly glance beyond faulty conjecture and wish upon ‘sunbeams or maybe moonbeams’ in a doleful cracked tenor. For a resonantly uplifting counteraction, he offers mellifluent ‘let’s see a smile’ gem, “C’mon Now.”
Quite apropos, the sadly departing “Feel The Same” re-invests a few somber Lennon piano motifs to get its wearily somber mood across. When Parker remits heartbreaking campfire duet, “Keep Me Hanging On” (allied with Mascott alto Kendall Meade), he proves to be completely affecting as a contemporary Country crooner as well. Guests Jay Farrar (whose wicked harmonica screech usurps bass-rumbled, piano-tinkled highlight “Into The Sun”), Tianna Kennedy (cello), Joan Wasser (violin), and former Space Needle partner Jud Ehrbar (drums) decorously detail several stimulating numbers. Recommended.