[Dead Oceans, 2013]
Jeff Pearson, February 7, 2013
If I was the type of person to still find myself dumbfounded when a particular artist doesn’t garner the attention that the level of talent or seeming commercial viability should yield, then I would be absolutely dumbfounded at the fact that Nashville-by-way-of-Colorado Springs’ Night Beds aren’t household names at this point. Well, perhaps that’s a little bit of a hyperbole, but with the explosion of pop-leaning folky music of late, their latest record, Country Sleep, seems it should be a top candidate for being your cool aunt’s new favorite band. It’s ironic, however, and somewhat telling of the state of popular music today, that the artistic elements of the record that make it truly great–among them, the record’s stunning use of space, delicacy and haunting nature–are what will probably keep Night Beds from ever reaching the level of stature that they likely deserve. Thus is the eternal conundrum of independent music; rarely can a band establish themselves artistically or commercially without at least a minor sacrifice to the other. Night Beds seem to be one of those bands that we can keep safely as our own for a little while, and if the fragile, chamber country songs on Country Sleep are any indication, they seem to be just fine with that.
Night Beds is primarily the project of singer/songwriter Winston Yellen, started nearly a decade ago in a friend’s apartment, and the majority of Country Sleep retains that tangible electricity that comes from those late-night college picking sessions. On tracks like “Faithful Heights,” the a cappella album opener, or the “Borrowed Time” intro, the more spacious, subdued moments of the record, you can practically hear crickets chirping in the Nashville night amidst the warm tape hiss surrounding his voice. It’s those intimate moments, where Yellen allows the listener into the room with him as he confidently maneuvers the gorgeous collection of songs, that make Country Sleep truly special. It’s a rare feat, in the somewhat faceless era of music we are ensconced in, that a record should bare itself to the listener so fully and profoundly; this is the feeling that comes with throwing on an early Neil Young record, where so much of the story lies in the honest clarity of his voice. The unfiltered truth behind Yellen’s words and the warmness of the sound quality gives the record a timeless quality, and is invaluable in today’s version of the music industry.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Yellen is quite the adept songwriter. There are not many things that are more timeless or invaluable in music than good songwriting, after all. Slide guitars, perhaps, but there are plenty of those to be found on Country Sleep. Not only does Yellen have a sharply-tuned attention to melody, but the lush beauty of the song’s arrangements for most of the record give the words he chooses to put to melody more weight. There is an understanding of the beauty to be found in simplicity; “Cherry Blossoms” highlights Night Beds’ attention to that, with Yellen saying, “Play me a simple song / So I can sing along / And cherry blossoms in spring / They mean everything.” Yellen calls attention to the subtle things that we can take beauty away from in our everyday lives, claiming to find that peace within a simple song while simultaneously giving the world one more to cozy up inside of.
Those slow, languid ballads like “Cherry Blossoms,” “Wanted You In August,” and “Even If We Try” are balanced out by the classic rickety-wheel-on-a-gravel-road country bounce of “Ramona” and “Lost Springs;” these tracks are important to the flow of Country Sleep in making it a more dynamic affair, though they still retain many of the same earnest qualities of Yellen’s more capacious work–paramount of those, the strong lyrical presence. On “Ramona,” Yellen seems to be singing to disenfranchised youth in general when he says, “Come on Ramona, make it your mantra / Fuck what they taught ya.” In putting forth “Ramona” as the record’s lead single, Yellen solidifies the rebellion held within the track as not only the title character’s mantra, but the project as a whole. It’s when boundaries or norms within music are briefly suspended that Country Sleep has its greatest impact, and Yellen’s unique blend of almost operatic mountaineer vocal performances and folky instrumentation makes the most sense.
It would be slightly shocking if Country Sleep erupts in the mainstream, but stranger things have happened, and it wouldn’t be a commentary on the quality of the record in the slightest if it doesn’t. Night Beds will certainly have the attention of those who seek the record out in the meantime. It seems to be one of those records that those who open themselves up to it regard fondly for a lifetime, which actually holds more weight than being the next in line in the “hit today, forgotten tomorrow” world of popular music.