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How strange it is

The North Country specializes in cosmic wonder and wild musical exploration

The North Country asks big questions, without getting in the way of the music. Photo credit: Mark Williams Hoelscher

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It's the natural state of being to be mystified by the universe -- not in a "the flap of a great bird's wings must be creating this thunder we're hearing!" sort of way, but in an innate curiosity that draws us to explore. Sure enough, the more we explore about life, the more we figure out, which paradoxically leaves us with even bigger questions. We know about the atoms that make up our atmosphere; we know that some planets orbit our yellow sun (and that Pluto, sadly, has been kicked out of the club); and we know that a gold record containing the best that humanity had to offer was shot out of Earth and has recently entered the interstellar space.

A sense of cosmic wonder, I hope, lives in all of us, though it might mostly take up residence in the back part of your mind. For those with a cosmic curiosity more front and center in our thinking, it may be accompanied by a bit of existential dread, or a feeling that being a speck of dust lost in the vast expanse of time and space is a little dispiriting. However, others may find their relatively meaningless place in the universe a source of inspiration. There have been no shortage of these sorts of people -- both frightened of the cosmos, and invigorated by it -- in pop music.

My mind first turns to Wayne Coyne, who built a towering career of searching for greater truths in the Flaming Lips. Indie pop polyglot Andrew Bird, while usually concerning himself more with the tactile intricacies of terrestrial life, is another such explorer. Sardonic folk-rock troubadour John Grant also falls into this category, though he may be more pessimistic in the face of the great unknown. All of these artists are evoked, for me, in the music of Washington, D.C., collective the North Country. Led by Andrew Grossman, the North Country varies in lineup, but the constant remains Grossman's interest in exploration -- both musically, and in our universe.

The North Country's latest LP came out in September of last year. Its title, In Defense of Cosmic Altruism, feels like it could have also titled a Carl Sagan essay. Though the phrase "cosmic altruism" doesn't seem to have a defined meaning, we might take it to mean giving aid to those outside of our planet. The music of the North Country doesn't really go that far, but the first track on Cosmic Altruism, "My Understanding," quickly gives you a sense of where Grossman is coming from: "My understanding of the world as it is / is of the world as I hope it can be." The later line, "How strange it is to be anything at all," cribs from fellow wonderers Neutral Milk Hotel.

Like those bands I made comparisons to earlier, the North Country couches their existential questions in music that balances elements of psychedelia, folk-rock, experimental pop, and baroque instrumentation. There's a lushness to the North Country, a sort of reverence for immaculate production and thoughtful composition. Like Andrew Bird and, say, Father John Misty, Grossman has a novelistic approach to his songwriting that somehow doesn't work to undo how genuinely catchy and immediate the songs are. Take a mouthful of a line like, "We're the ardor of our innocence / turning to the martyrdom of age," from "Ardor in D," and marvel at how it works as an anthemic sing-along.

Grossman is on tour under the North Country moniker, but will be performing solo, synth-led shows. I've no doubt that such a restless, searching, musical mind can still shine without a full band.

THE NORTH COUNTRY, w/ Anna Gordon, Familiars, Manybest, all ages, 6 p.m., Sunday, March 4, cover TBA, Le Voyeur, 404 4th Ave. E., Olympia, 360.943.5710

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