Night Beds, ‘Country Sleep’ – Album Review
Winston Yellen's jaw-dropping debut album opens with 'Fateful Heights,' an a capella lullaby sung with simmering passion -- one lonely tenor voice engulfed in eerie silence. In our flashy indie era of Pro-Tools and pitch-correcting, where louder is better and "more" is more, it's an arresting statement of purpose from a songwriter who seems gloriously oblivious to the outside world echoing outside of his vocal booth.
The album, fittingly, was born from the myth of the musical nomad: In 2011, Yellen -- a college drop-out drifting around his native Colorado Springs -- ventured to the outskirts of Nashville. Armed with an acoustic guitar, a laptop and (more than likely) a nasty hangover, he rented a house formerly owned by Johnny Cash and June Carter. There, inspired by the raw simplicity of classic country and blues artists, he worked with a minimal palette, latching onto the first 10 melodies to breeze through his bedroom window.
Every track on 'Country Sleep' is a legitimate knock-out. Like Bon Iver's Justin Vernon (another songwriter whose debut album was written in country isolation), Yellen is a master of harnessing huge emotion and drama from the simplest, sparsest sonic tools. 'Even If We Try' also starts in an a cappella mist, gradually building, layer by layer -- a modestly strummed guitar, a flicker of violin, a flurry of handclaps -- into an opus. 'Ramona' is the maximalist flip-side, crashing straight out of the gate with booming tom-toms, glistening electric and steel guitars and enveloping vocal harmonies -- but it's equally judicious, using each instrumental flourish and structural transition (from the hushed chorus to the simmering, falsetto-driven coda) to achieve maximum impact.
Yellen's debut album lasts 35 minutes, each one more lovely than the one before. Highlights include the drunken twilight ballad 'Cherry Blossoms'; the swirling, jazzy atmospheres of 'Wanted You In August'; the mid-tempo, melancholy country-pop of 'Borrowed Time'; the Sigur-Ros-around-the-campfire sing-along of '22'; and the brief-yet-mesmerizing 'Was I For You?' which marries harmonized acoustics with psychedelic organs before fizzling out into a cozy flurry of clanging boots and slammed doors. (Even this guy's found sounds are tasteful.)
Simply put, 'Country Sleep' is the the finest debut album from a young indie songwriter to saunter along in many years. But it's much more than that: In its maturity, focus and overwhelming beauty, it transcends its context -- an understated, heartbreaking epic for the iPhone age.