Markland Starkie probably prefers the more rural sections of the English Midlands area where he was born over the cramped quarters he currently finds himself in London. In fact, Starkie seems preoccupied with his affinity to his former home. Sleeping States, the moniker he performs under, is overwhelmingly concerned with the desire to reconnect with the seemingly unfettered expanse he grew up in and attempting to duplicate it in sound.
On There the Open Spaces, Starkie takes his said genre and attempts to slightly redefine it. “I had a real problem with singer/songwriters,” he told Dazed and Confused. “I find the whole thing cheesy beyond belief.” This means is that you won’t find any acoustic strumming or sentimental folk ballads on this record. Instead Starkie uses his classical training and minimalist approach to make subtle, subdued soundscapes accompanied by his humble, boyish vocals.
The song “Rivers” from Open Spaces made its first, er, splash across the pond in the States when both Simon Taylor-Davis of the Klaxons and Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear mentioned Sleeping States as one of their recent favorites in Guest List interviews with Pitchforkmedia. And “Rivers” pretty much embodies what Sleeping States is all about: the dissonance of detuned guitars making a spatial melody, Starkie’s coy unassuming voice yearning for escape and romance, a lightly punctuated tom-tom off in the distance. The song is a success as far as Starkie’s unorthodox combination is concerned. It genuinely bucks the singer-songwriter trend and does it well. However, the question remains: what’s the rest of Open Spaces sound like? Has Starkie succeeded in creating a new kind of minimalist approach that accurately depicts his rural upbringings? Or will the lack of instrumentation make Open Spaces sound more like empty spaces?
Surprisingly enough, the ambitious Starkie does some impressive things with his soft voice, detuned strings, and the occasional appearance of a drum set. Before “Rivers”, which sits triumphantly as the second track, we are treated with the one-minute-six-second a capella, “Rain Check”. It’s an adorable little intro to what is an intensely intimate affair. Much like the work of Bonnie “Prince” Billy this is music to which you are more likely to listen to alone. Starkie continues his discordant confessional with “Planning My Escape”, his ode to breaking free from the confinement he has admittedly set himself. A set of looping, reverb-laden guitar riffs intertwine as Starkie gently declares, “In fact, I’ve been planning my escape.”, and you find yourself empathizing with this mild-mannered troubadour.
After the enticing lullaby “Contact Lunacy”, Starkie comes closest to what may be considered traditional indie pop with the upbeat drums and backing harmonies of “September, Maybe” and “I Wonder”. Sitting smack in the middle of this disc these songs are a welcome reprieve from the vast, sparsely populated melodies which exist throughout Open Spaces. With some scantily played drums by Caroline Banks, these two tracks serve to show what Sleeping States may become if Starkie gets some backing musicians. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
With There the Open Spaces, Starkie has managed to explore some uncharted territory and create some beautiful moments in the process. The only problem with “Sleeping States” is that it may emphasize the personal, contemplative side of Starkie a bit too much. It’s like reading a diary instead of an autobiography. It was a bold move: attempting to avoid the singer-songwriter stigma while painting musical portraits of his rural upbringing and the desire to dwell in these places once again. Open Spaces hits the mark more than a few times. But Starkie may want to bring in some fresh blood for his next effort. If he doesn’t add a little life to Sleeping States, his next effort might induce a nap.