Dead Oceans, 2013
That’s certainly the case with Night Beds, the musical project of Nashville singer/songwriter Winston Yellen and the name behind Country Sleep, my personal favorite album of the year so far. Yellen and I must come from similar schools on the notion of musical familiarity, as nearly every moment of Country Sleep echoes with some glimmer of sonic nostalgia, some shred of homage to the vast collective of influences he gathers throughout. But unlike another early 2013, homage-fueled record (the Rolling Stones/Beatles/Elvis/Velvet Underground collision that is Foxygen’s We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic) , Country Sleep never crosses the line into obvious reference. Ultimately, listeners will hear what they want to in these songs, whether it’s hushed atmospherics in the vein of Cold Roses-era Ryan Adams (see “22”), or earnest, sentimental bombast, a la Sleeping At Last (the sweeping romance of “Even If We Try”).
Still though, Night Beds does a terrific job of weaving borrowed sounds and textures into a vision that is thoroughly his own. Few will miss the way Yellen’s reverb-drenched vocals recall older My Morning Jacket records, or how the echoing a cappella of “Faithful Heights” and the dizzying vocal harmony of “Even If We Try” feel appropriated directly from the Fleet Foxes playbook, but those familiar pieces are merely threads in a much larger tapestry. Country Sleep, as a whole, is a condensation of Nashville sounds, from the stark singer/songwriter confessional that is “Was I For You?” to the propulsive indie-folk-pop of “Ramona” (and if The Lumineers can latch onto the mainstream, the latter can certainly follow suit). “Borrowed Time,” meanwhile, balances the longing of Appalachian folk with the rollicking, boozy drive of something you might hear at Nashville’s famed Bluebird Cafe. And album closer, “TENN,” is a timelessly nostalgic lullaby, a softly-strummed ‘song for the road’ whose wandering troubadour aesthetic gives the record its perfect coda.
All of Yellen’s best qualities coalesce on “Cherry Blossoms,” a trancelike piece of midnight balladry that at once feels both heartbreaking and euphoric. The song, like much of Country Sleep, is a sonic feast, Yellen’s gorgeous vocals padded and buffeted by a cloud of harmonies, a subtle electric guitar arrangement and the moan of a memory-laden pedal steel rounding out the symphony. The song crescendos as it goes, filling out in sound with each passing second until the whole thing boils over. Yellen’s voice leaps an octave, his repeated cries of the words “take me home” rising emotionally over the feast of sounds. And then, far too soon, it’s over.
“Cherry Blossoms,” and indeed, the entirety of Country Sleep, plays out like a musical vortex, a song and album so beautifully written, so meticulously recorded and produced, and so passionately performed by its creator, that it’s impossible not to be swept away by it. Undoubtedly, there will be listeners who write Yellen off as no more than the sum of his influences. But while Ryan Adams, Jim James, Robin Pecknold, Justin Vernon, Gram Parsons, Conor Oberst and so many more are probably at least partially responsible for making Yellen the songwriter he is today, the guy has a gift that can’t be learned through simple imitation. It’s something that can’t be faked by ProTools or brought in with session musicians, something that can’t be paid for in promotion or acquired through positive critical reception. And I’m not even entirely sure what that is. Maybe it’s the intimacy on display here, the emotional honesty of it all; perhaps it’s the confident variations in sound inherent throughout, or the sonic splendor of the finished product. Or maybe, it all comes down to Yellen’s warm and welcoming embrace of familiar territory. Regardless of the reason, Country Sleep is more immediately accessible and rewarding than most of the records from the artists listed above, a stunning surprise debut that will be sitting somewhere in my annual top ten come December. Until then, though, I’ll just flip the record over and play it again.
On a lot of occasions, music lovers get to a point in their listening evolution where they start to rebel against the familiar. I’ve always found that interesting, since when we first start falling in love with music, it’s the songs and albums that we can relate to things we already love that click with us most easily. And I’ve always remained like that to a certain extent, something that will never make me the “hippest” music writer in town, but also something I’m really not at all ashamed of. I still have an emotional allegiance to the genres that made me fall in love with music in the first place, and frankly, I probably always will. Alt-country, folk, roots rock: these sounds were my entry point, the hallmarks of bands like Counting Crows or The Wallflowers that transfixed me as a child, and they remain the sounds that can hook me faster than just about anything else in music today. Because sometimes, familiarity doesn’t have to be derivative or uninspired or forgettable; sometimes, it just feels like home.