[16 April 2013]
Artists naming their albums in a way that gives the listener an idea about the contents within is nothing new, but Winston Yellen has gone the extra mile and seems to have named his entire music project to represent what he wants his songs to sound like. An album called Country Sleep by an act titled Night Beds isn’t one you should expect to flail around energetically.
The title of Country Sleep is true to both of its components. For one, this is very much night music: songs experienced best through headphones when the sun has bid good night and the lights inside your room have been dimmed. The production is carefully soft even during the livelier songs so as not to break the constantly dreamy atmosphere, while Yellen’s soft voice sounds weary and half-awake throughout. The “country” part of the title is similarly accurate. Yellen takes his musical cues from classic Americana both past and present. Country Sleep has clearly been written by a man who has done his homework on the great history of his musical forerunner, but the album is clearly tied to the present day rather than swimming in oldies nostalgia.
Easily the most outstanding part of Country Sleep, however, is Yellen’s voice: the a cappella intro “Faithful Heights” is even solely devoted for it, almost as if to show right from the get-go what the point of importance here is. Despite his young age, his voice sighs with the weight of a man who has lived through a lot and is weary from his travels. His ever-present falsetto is achingly gorgeous and forms an important and beautiful part of the album’s soundscape. The songs rarely match the power of his voice, but at his best moments Yellen weaves an evocative web to get wrapped up in: a sonic pillow of soothing textures, beautiful guitar flourishes, and resonant wistfulness. The likes of “22” and “Wanted You in August” sweetly float around light as air with a beautifully lush instrumentation underlining Yellen’s star power, while the obvious highlight moment “TENN” shows how effective he can be with just a guitar as his accompaniment. These, and the majority of the album, aren’t notably strong as compositions per se: The emphasis is largely on the mood of the music throughout, which is always impeccably strong but in terms of songcraft they carry only the occasional truly memorable melody. You could argue that catchy tunes isn’t the point of the album, and with its obvious intimate touch and focus on how the music feels there is some merit to that point, but it’s exactly what the album would need to rise up a couple of notches and make a bigger splash.
The word that springs first to mind from Country Sleep is “potential”. It has all the important parts a great album needs but it’s not quite there yet. It’s not because of any particular weaknesses the album might carry either, but rather the album carries all the signs of a young artist only partially able to tap into their talent at the start of their musical life. Give Yellen time and we might have his name listed among the classics of the genre. Country Sleep is a good start in that path: an atmospheric and intimate experience that may not contain any true killer moments, but never slips off either and remains a beautiful and pleasant thing to sink into at night throughout its length.