‘Even If We Try’
If you debunk over-earnest comparisons; Night Beds will capture with its rather incongruous beauty.
Availability: ‘Even If We Try’ is available via http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7iljkaDZvyw
Today- in lieu of any brand-spanking new music- will be dedicated to an awed retrospection…
Although it is a retroactive review that is timely, as well as it is pressingly urgent. Night Beds is touring London through April, and is featuring heavily in the press as well as on the tongues of many native and international fans. Before I get to the more important business of reviewing the young man behind the moniker, I need to discuss a matter of some delicacy. It is concerned with a subject that is dear to my heart; as well as one that plays on my nerves, daily: comparisons. It seems like the first thing that a music reviewer or press source does, when tasked with critiquing a new artist, is to make an instant comparable. I am guilty, to an extent. I do it to draw comparisons, and, should an artist stray too closely to an existing one, urge caution and future consideration. I am more concerned with the tendency for journalists to refer to artists as ‘The Next …’; whether it is Adele, Amy Winehouse, The Killers, or whomever, it is always a bone of contention. It is quite acceptable to hint at possible influences, when reviewing a track, album or voice. If it is obvious then you can’t get away from it, and as much as anything it helps to interlink and conjoin fans of the artist in question, with the new idol. It is 2013, and there has been a raft of new music that has strayed, at times, too closely, with other artists. It is hard, I guess as there has been so much music since the ’20s and ’30s, that nearly everything there is to be said, has already been said. The greatest acts, artists, albums and songs, have- rather regrettably- already been recorded. It may be a rash statement, but am aware that the best releases, have already been recorded. All the best singers have come, and put their marker down, and the finest acts in history have been and gone. The issue facing any new artist, is how to be original, but not too bland or divisive. Those who manage to avoid any obvious comparison tend to fade quickly, or are seen as a curiosity. Those who are too close for comfort in terms of originality, are rightfully criticised and rebuked. There is a growing core that have superseded expectation and pigeon-holing; managing to stay fresh and pioneer a truly unexpected and incomparable sound. It is the media reviewers who hear a few seconds of one song, and instantly lump them in with another artist or band, that is going to be the death of creativity. If you do this, then people expect too much from you, or dismiss you as a second-rate wannabe. As much as anything, it says that that musician has no creativity or transferable talent, and your attention or appreciation is instantly dragged away, before you’ve even heard a note of any of their songs.
I mention it, because Night Beds have been strongly compared with two, rather different artists. American solo artist Winston Yellen is the man behind the name. The back-story of this intriguing star can be traced back as early as 2006, when, with a friend, conversations and ambitions were discussed. Two years later the first workable Night Beds song was formulated- called ‘You Were Afriad’. Subsequently, there was a lot of mountain air, drinking, pontificating, and dreaming, before Nashville was designated as Yellen’s new home. The parable and scenes of cabins, isolation, love splits, heartache and loneliness, many have pointed out the similarities with Justin Vernon (A.K.A. Bon Iver). Yellen is not a child who has read all of the Bon Iver tales and decided, rather than seek a path of city lights and endless joy, he’d rather plump for a story of bleakness, a Emerson-cum-Hemingway blend. The fact that the U.S.A. is a huge and diverse country with millions of people and 50 states with very little in common, doesn’t seem to have registered in the minds of lazy reviewers. Statistically there are going to be quite a few singers and bands who have similar issues and circumstance as that of Vernon; and Yellen is not going to be the last artist who has a similar hard road to glory. If you put the first pointless diversion out of your mind, there is a second one. This is the comparison to Jeff Buckley. It began in 1994, when Radiohead recorded The Bends. Yorke, inspired by a performance by Buckley, rushed to the studio, where the staggering ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ was laid down. It was said that the softer and more elegiac moments were inspired by Buckley. It certainly played a huge part in the bands career, and it is argued that without the influence of Buckley, they may have never recorded many of their greatest tracks. Although there are some influences in Yorke’s vocal he already had the voice before he heard Buckley; the epiphany was not to alter his voice, more write more sensitive and spellbinding songs. Since then critics and music-lovers alike have lazily compared the two, and in fact any artist now that pertains the wisp of falsetto, is referred to as ‘The Next Jeff Buckley’. It is galling, as no-one will ever get anywhere near to Buckley’s range, power, potency and tone. If they do then they are mimicking him, and is not something to commend. Buckley was a forefather for modern man; an icon that showed that sensitivity and an amazing voice were not to be frowned at or feared. He is not a synonym for ‘falsetto’ or ‘sensitivity’, nor is he someone who should have his name associated with artists who are not worthy or have no aspirations to be him. If you disassociate these lazy comparisons from your mind, the listening experience is a much more transcendent experience. Night Beds blend a majesty of autobiography and purpose, with incredible atmosphere, topped off with an atomic cherry of stunning vocals. The album ‘Country Sleep’ has been available for a little while; garnering effusive and celebratory reviews from a huge following, that has not only earned its figurehead Yellen a second home here in England- should he want it- but also a huge worldwide fan-base.
Right from the get-go, ‘Even If We Try’ dispels and eradicates any post hoc ergo propter hoc journalism and narrow-minded naivety. It is the voice that greats us first. It is a haunting and spine tingling sound, that- if you wanted a comparable vocalist- resembles an early-career Rufus Wainwright. There is a similar majesty and theatrical power to the voice; able to hold steady and powerfully, amidst a hail of emotion and heartache. The opening moments are largely acapella; the vocal is right up front, crystal clear; as if the author was alone in a candle-lit studio one night, just his own soul for company, and was so close to the microphone that it may have needed to be wiped clean after the take. This means that you are drawn in and cast under by the beautiful voice aching from the speakers. The delivery is quite unique. Certain syllables are emphasised and punctuated; which creates a swoon and flight. It also creates an impactful jolt as well. The musical titration is in the distance, and the decision to focus primarily on the vocal is wise; it is the strongest suit and it means that your attention is captured immediately. The lyrics, I suspect, have a deeply personal relevance to our hero; and are direct and poetic alike. Early samples such as: “Well all the rivers rage/Descend upon this age”, shows mature signs of Neil Young, Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell. There is a sense of the influence of the ’60s and ’70s; the words are a cross between a confession and a eulogy. There is never a sense of the morbid suicidally of Drake, nor any evocation of wanting to get away from it all. There is honest and a summation of a scene that has left many stones unturned with broken bones and blood. There is a Gothic windswept imagery to the words; one suspects the likes of Bryon, Poe or Stoker would tackle, were they songwriters. It is the sort of track you could imagine being performed in a church or cathedral. There is silence, except for the sound of the vocal, and I could well imagine that the congregation would keep a respectful and hushed silence for the duration; keen to learn about the woes of the young Yellen. There is a wordless chorus and the sound of plaintive and evocative strings, that transcends the sonic and emotional shift. From deeply personal doubt and heartache, we swim in a calmer lake, where we can be alone and reflect, before the next verse is upon us. The structure of the verses remains unabated; the same pace and sway of vocals, except they are accompanied by strings and sweltering audio lust. Where as the first verse was intended to grab and implore, the remainder of the track, instead is designed to elevate the senses and have all your hairs standing to attention. The lyrics remain unimpeachable in their reverence and emotional sacrament. When it is said “Remember what is true/As you watch the colors (sic.)”, it is true that our protagonist has seen too much, and forgotten too little. He is wise but hopeful of a regression and remission of his current malaise. It seems that there is perhaps some sense of literary license some of the later lyrics such as “Come on Johnny, please won’t you speak to me?” and scenes of late-night debacle: “And wailing on the doldrums/Had ourselves a lonesome night”. I wonder if this is a song of broken romance, of a tumultuous friendship, or a conglomeration of the two; there is a sense of mystery that leaves many of the words open for interpretation. Around 2:50, there is a distorted and haunting vocal choir- a mingling of purity and machinery in tone; it gains momentum, gets louder, and washes over you. It is a startling bookend all in all. We go from tender and divine vocals at the beginning, to a wailed disorder to end. Imagine a combination of the end of Radiohead’s ‘Fitter Happier’, and the sound of a B-52 bomber being shot down into the sea, and you’re sort of half-way there. Just when you think that that is going to be that, it ends, and there is a brief, but fascinating vocal call; that is wordless but evocative, and brings the track to a close.
The male market, and especially the solo end of it, is one of the most overcrowded and competitive sectors. Every week there is some new 20-something-year-old, each equip with guitar, songbook, and a voice of some sort. It is very rare that a voice comes along that can overwhelm or inspire so much. Night Beds achieve a mean feat of projecting such a voice, but teaming it with a set of concise and memorable lyrics; a beautiful composition, and some unexpected twists and turns. If you are listening to the audio alone, I would suggest watching the accompanying video on YouTube, as it is a curious video. Whether it is a juxtaposition, or commentary it is quite stark, strange and unforgettable; filled with odd scenes, and harrowing moments. I was initiated to the wonder of Night Beds as recently as three days ago, and have been bowled over by the effects and joys of the music. If you explore more of ‘Country Sleep’ there is a palette of diverse themes and sounds, and is not merely an album of duplicated versions of this track. I have been inspired to write a song, rather annoyingly. I had settled on a set of songs for a ‘mini-L.P’; contented at 6 songs, but have started another, after listening to ‘Even If We Try’- the bastard! That is what great and tremendous songs should do: activate you into picking up a pen and following suit. Yellen will be back in the U.K. soon, I hope, as he has just finished a residency here. I thought there were more dates, but think he is in Sweden today, wowing the northern peaks of Europe. It is free to listen to, and will bring rich rewards, that keep on giving. If you are bored of the vast sway of soulless, stale and androgynous solo artists out there at the moment, and are seeking something quite special..
… check out the YouTube link at the top of the review, and be overcome.