Softly padding folk music from small-town America that, if only it was a touch better, could be described as haunting.
It seems the term "folk" has become so bastardized by a media too lazy to take the time to really categorize it properly, that people are labeling as "slowcore" some pretty middle-of-the-road groups. Whether it's a blog-fueled effort at inspiring interest in a listening public already overrun with too many singer-songwriter options (what Wikipedia would call journalistic shorthand) we've almost run out of words to describe folk-related music. Doesn't slowcore imply some kind of intense, burning melancholy, something a band like Devstations (or really, Nick Cave) approach? Doesn't slowcore imply instability, some long drawn-out (perhaps self-inflicted) violence? Maybe it's just my overactive imagination.
The 10 songs of the National Lights' debut CD, The Dead Will Walk, Dear, flow by in less than half an hour -- a half hour of solemnity and calm to the tune of tambourine, organ, banjo, E-bow and lap-steel guitar. These instruments are truly folk, and this music is more traditional folk than anything else. Yet we think we need some other language, some other modernization, to differentiate this music from the quagmire of Amy Millans and My Brightest Diamonds and Joanna Newsoms and Regina Spektors all trying to carve their own spaces out of those four letters. Either way, the National Lights are not slowcore. Anything but -- these songs have barely the backbone to hold up a couple minutes' length, let alone a burning heart of desire or sadness. They float like a leaf falling on a backwoods stream, and this fey quality's not always terrible; it just marks a stubborn adherence to a form best reserved for campfires, and people with beards.
As may be expected from the length of the disc as a whole, the best songs on the album are over too quickly. "The Dead Will Walk" is so simple, with a strummed acoustic guitar and male-female block harmony, but so effective; the song blossoms easily with banjo and strings before ending just like that. "O, Ohio" sketches another familiar melody in a quietly authoritative way; meanwhile, the lyrics of leaving a no-longer home may surreptitiously hit you, harder than imagined.
Jacob Thomas Bern's voice is a bit too smoky to really be universally appealing, and it's not strangled enough to be really indie. In the end it's evocative enough, if nothing particularly more than that. The other contributors vocally are Kiehne and Sonya Cotton, the latter of whom has worked with Sufjan Stevens in the past, a fact less interesting than her pure, ethereal voice. But vocal beauty alone, here as elsewhere, can't make an album. And songs can be minimal without their impacts being that way as well -- we just need to look the way of Jose Gonzalez to figure that out. "Riverbed", one example of simplicity for its' own sake, repeats a 1-4-5 progression on the electric organ so many times the whole thing becomes utterly predictable. And a few of the pieces here seem misplaced. Opener "Better For It, Kid" (the "it" of the title being dead, btw) has such gravity, especially when Berns croons, "you're better for love", the song feels like a conclusion.
Despite these debut-album missteps, the National Lights do a fine job of sticking to the themes that define them: small town blues, death, and love. This is depressing stuff; but the choice of traditional folk as the medium of this communication lightens the impact, creating a series of short, quick-passing compositions. If the band learned to express these sturdy themes in a more varied musical language, it would likely have something more lasting than The Dead Will Walk, Dear.
Listen to "Midwest Town"