War Against Sleep's Duncan Fleming is fighting the good fight against banal lyricism, even if his music has some catching up to do.
When I read about a guy who's spent the entirety of his career as a solo performer, someone whose only live instrument tends to be a piano, I don't really expect that the first bit of recorded music I hear out of him is a Doors-influenced bit of rock 'n roll. Still, that's what we get with "Borderline Personality", the first song on the EP of the same name from Bristol's War Against Sleep.
War Against Sleep is Duncan Fleming, and his singer-songwriter bent runs contrast to what has come to be known as the "Bristol sound", a fancy name for the trip-hop pioneered by Massive Attack and Portishead in the mid-'90s. Even so, the dark themes of the music are consistent with those of the aforementioned bands, thus furthering Bristol's reputation as a rather sketchy place to be at any given time, misleading as such an impression might ultimately prove to be. In the three songs on Borderline Personality, we hit on mild mania, obsession, and a little vignette about a trip into the forest as told by none other than Satan. Or, at least, someone calling himself Satan. In the end, does it really matter? Probably not.
"Borderline Personality" is the true stunner song here, with its deep, jazz organ groove and '70s rock guitars. Honestly, there's not much to the song to set it apart from the current crop of garage throwback bands, except for the willingness to use that organ, not to mention a trombone(!) solo during the bridge. Fleming proves that he can hack it as a rock 'n roll god of a vocalist, invoking Iggy Pop's sneer and a touch of Bowie's croon to his advantage. Still, I can't help but feel as though it's a bit of a toss-off, especially compared to the other two tunes here.
Those tunes, then, would be "Ride Away with Me" and "Starling". They're both piano balladeer stuff, sorta like Elton John on an off-kilter day, though now bringing out more of the croon than the sneer. "Ride Away With Me" employs bizarre lyrics ("Little puppies meet / Around the bitch's teat / Do you need me on my hands and knees begging?") to convey a level of obsession that might make Lloyd Dobler seem centered. Finally, "Starling" is the aforementioned Satan song, and apart from that little lyrical twist, it's a relatively straightforward major-key waltz that doesn't leave all that much of an impression. It's got a neat little ending, with some creepy Hellraiser-style noises to drive the whole Satan thing home, but it's still not all that memorable five minutes after it's ended.
It's hard to tell just what War Against Sleep's new album Invitation to the Feast will sound like, based on the scraps tossed to the faithful via the Borderline Personality EP. Will it rock out like the title track, or will it get all introspective and subtly psychotic like the other two tracks? Given the fascinating manner in which Fleming approaches both styles, it doesn't matter--either result (or a combination of the two, even) will be worth hearing, if only for the lyrical twists on familiar styles that will undoubtedly be on display.