[22 March 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Benedic Lamdin is probably most famous for his role as an outside producer and something of a remixer than for his original work behind his own moniker Nostalgia 77. Notably, he jazzed and funked up the sadly now departed White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”, injecting the song with a soulful undercurrent that was arguably missing from the original. Well, it’s been four years since the last Nostalgia 77 album, but Lamdin is back in action and this time he’s brought a secret weapon along with him in tow for The Sleepwalking Society, his fourth studio album. That would be the so-far unknown German singer Josa Peit, who has a pair of smoking, sultry pipes that draws immediate comparisons to a much more baritone Norah Jones at times, while lilting angelically at others.
I predict big things for Peit, based on the evidence here, for she is a force to be reckoned with, augmenting the hazy, late-night, dreamy quality of the recording that she backs up on seven of its nine tracks. I don’t know if she’s the next Esperanda Spalding in that she’s going to pull off an upset Grammy win next year, or even be nominated for that matter—owing that The Sleepwalking Society is on a tiny U.K. indie, and we all know that, barring Arcade Fire’s win, the Grammys generally don’t reward independent acts—but listening to her is a seductive experience. Peit’s inclusion also notes a more marked change-up in Nostalgia 77’s sound: whereas the previous albums were mostly instrumental affairs, and Lamdin is more known as a jazz producer who has called on a klatch of featured singers here and there, this is a song-oriented affair featuring only Peit as a vocalist with the slightest hints of blues and folk permeating throughout. (Given that this is something of a departure, the album’s cover art is stark and plain, almost as though it were heralding a bootleg rather than a proper LP.) However, jazz is the main course on The Sleepwalking Society, and the album has a laid-back, sleepy feel to it that would be the perfect soundtrack for closing time in your neighbourhood lounge. This is music best appreciated with a martini glass in your hand, though the concoction should definitely be stirred and not shaken.
The album kicks things off with the slinky, deep blues “Sleepwalker”, which comes complete with a dirty organ and muted trumpets bubbling up against the song’s stark undercurrent. It more or less sets the tone for what’s to follow in its lackadaisical feel, even if I can admit that I find the cut to be the least affecting thing on The Sleepwalking Society, as its marriage of blues and jazz is a little off-putting: there’s something intangible about the track that keeps you away rather than draws you in. It’s a mostly sparse tune, save for the choruses when the saxophones kick in like something out of a bad ‘50s rock and roll band trying to win over a high school sock hop. However, Peit’s pipes lift the track up and, despite her Germanic origins, she sounds like a black soul diva in the best tradition of rhythm and blues. And despite this somewhat half-baked introduction, things on The Sleepwalking Society do uplift from there.
On the hopeful and soaring “Beautiful Lie”, as an acoustic guitar plaintively plucks against soft, gentle brushing on the skins and an organ puffs cigarettes in the background, Peit seems to switch gears and reaches for the high registers in the song’s chorus, which is where some honey dripped strings swoop in. Things take a turn for the soulful on the next track, “Simmerdown”, which is also the record’s first single. If you crossed gospel with the jazz-rock fusion of late ‘70s Steely Dan, that would be an apt graph of the territory the song stakes out. It’s groovy, it’s affecting, and utterly compulsive. “Golden Morning” is a military march of a track that is propelled by a softly-strummed stand-up bass, but at a nick above two minutes in length, it’s over before it has a chance to really register. “When Love Is Strange”, which is the first of two instrumental tracks, features muted horns rubbing up a funky beat and a stuttering organ line. Arguably the most abstract thing to be found on The Sleepwalking Society, it is also probably the loudest and most brash song in the clutch. Its placement right smack-dab in the middle of the record is a rallying call to wakefulness and gives the album a varying shot in the arm right where it needs it most.
“Blue Shadow” features a reedy and haunting baritone saxophone simmering against the backdrop of Peit’s soulful pipes, and makes a case for being the record’s most straightforward song, nudging a bit into rock territory. “Mockingbird” is a lullaby to an expecting father, and Peit coos her way against a rolling, foot-tapping beat and lush acoustic guitar, and the song comes complete with a moving and perhaps a tad incongruous sax solo. A classical guitar heralds “Cherry” with a sweeping strings section, and is a slice of baroque heaven that is Renaissance art in scope. And with that song, we bid farewell to Piet’s lush and gorgeous vox, as “Hush” is an almost nine-minute-long, nocturnal, instrumental jazz shuffle that closes out the record, and metaphorically ushers nighthawks patronizing their favourite watering hole out the door.
When you add it all up, The Sleepwalking Society is workman-like in craft and construction, and offers a great deal of minute variety in texture, and a glossy and deep timbre throughout the course of its running time. It’s stunningly reflective and, more often than not, the album provides a gorgeous backdrop to moonlit nights. Outside of “Sleepwalker” and “Golden Morning”, which are more diamonds in the rough, The Sleepwalking Society is a glorious collection of material that coalesces into something that is funky, soulful, and multi-layered. While this is a relaxed and carefree recording, it never comes across as boring or geriatric. There are moments that are clearly stunning here, and they mostly come through Peit’s impassioned singing voice, such as when she swoops over a bridge in “Simmerdown”, or lilts in “Beautiful Lie”. With this collection, Lamdin has found a strong, dependable voice to augment his foray into actual songs rather than compositions. All in all, even though the record might be soft and on the verge of being categorized under “easy listening”, this is a taut, mostly exhilarating listen. Despite its overtures to the contrary, this is an album that you definitely don’t want to sleepwalk to: It invites close listening and appreciation to scour the depths of the musicianship offered at the hands of Lamdin and his cohort in arms.