Oh, what a world we live in: it must be unprecedented that a band who makes an album about World War II draws inevitable comparisons to no fewer than two other bands. To be sure, the Decemberists are often more interested in WWI and earlier times of piracy and derring-do, but their love olde-tyme storytelling remains. And Neutral Milk Hotel, who used Anne Frank as a touchstone for In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea, is clearly a progenitor of this type of historical pop.
Unlike the other two period pieces mentioned above, the New Jersey band Sleep Station takes a much more holistic approach to creating its albums. The band’s fifth release (and fourth concept album) is called After the War, and it takes as its subject a pilot’s life and death during WWII. Singer and chief songwriter David Debiak describes his artistic process as writing screenplays, and the band’s albums appear as soundtracks.
It all began with Runaway Elba-1, the band’s second release and first concept piece. Described as “the soundtrack to the unrealized film of the same title,” it’s about an engineer who creates a cyborg lover from spare parts in his lab. Sleep Station has since penned albums about an astronaut abandoned in space, and about the real-life doctor who enbalmed the body of his dead love and kept her secret and safe in his home. That album, Von Cosel, the immediate precursor to After the War, is based on an HBO documentary and is available as a free download from the band’s Web site.
Clearly, Sleep Station is no stranger to strange subject matter. Considering its antecedents, After the War is positively mainstream. Through the album’s 47 minutes we follow the pilot as he’s deployed to Europe, shot down over Normandy, France, and pines for his lost love and life. The band even used vintage equipment for the recording of the album, and crackling vintage-sounding voice recordings are meant to evoke the war years.
If the album vaguely follows the structure of the film Saving Private Ryan, with its flashbacks and flash-forwards, it also borrows liberally from a variety of musical styles, even approaching mimicry with “Caroline, London 1940”, which echoes in tone, style, and instrumentation the Neutral Milk Hotel tune “Holland, 1945”. But Debiak has a knack for writing infectious lyrical melodies, and even when the music doesn’t necessarily enhance the experience, his voice is enough to carry the track.
The title song in particular is an excellent showcase of Sleep Station’s abilities. It drifts in on gentle guitars and Debiak’s throaty voice, brings in a bouncing bass line worthy of the Fab Four, and introduces the pilot as he is today, scarred by the secrets he’s held close since the war. “Burden to You”, the pilot’s ode to the love he left behind, channels with eerie perfection the soothing sap of K-TEL-era ‘70s easy-pop. Not all listeners share Sleep Station’s appreciation, ironic or otherwise, of music from those thankfully bygone days, but it’s catchy enough to burrow deep into even the most reluctant listener’s head.
The mood continues its downward spiral with “All That Remains”, a soft but sweet weeper of a tune. It’s followed by the sprightly “Silver in the Sun”, which uses fuzzed-out southern rock guitars to describe the crash that ends the pilot’s tour of duty, after which he slowly sinks to unconsciousness, reminiscence, and death as he floats up into the light.
It’s not a happy story, but Sleep Station supplies plenty of bright hooks and jaunty guitars to ease the plot along, and After the War flows smoothly and enjoyably from the opening credits until the curtain falls.