Album Reviews

Sleeping States – In The Gardens Of The North

(Bella Union) UK release date: 10 August 2009

While the future of what can be loosely described as “loud music” stands on a precipice, as its purveyors and proponents decide whether it’s in a state of revivalism or revolution, quieter music (and the musicians that make it) continue forging onward – albeit with typically unassuming and uncelebrated progress.

Sleeping States, the pseudonym of English solo musician Markland Starkie, is yet artist another from Bella Union’s decorated list. And like the rest of its more placid associates, Sleeping States’ album In The Gardens Of The North prefers thoughtful composition and invention over wanton noise and bluster.

Many of this year’s popularly celebrated recordings emanate from artists used to taking a place among the backbenches of alternative music. Thrust forward into the limelight, and sometimes uncomfortably so, outsider music is going through a rich phase of acceptance. While Grizzly Bear, St Vincent, Cass McCombs, Neko Case and Andrew Bird aren’t exactly household names, they are more than adequately filling the heavyweight album/big-noise void; and with a type of music that massages the cerebrum rather than impressing it with the less-than-subtle force of a fretboarded sledgehammer.

Today’s diminishing volume levels have coincided with a sea-change in tastes toward intelligent music-making and esotericism. Obvious chord progressions feel decidedly unwelcome. Conventional vocals-guitar-bass-drums band setups seem prosaic. Low-key musical alchemy is where it’s at now; and why have four band members creating the same old four-band-member din when you can have one creating the sound of a dozen? Although In The Gardens Of The North isn’t quite the non-electronic equivalent of Animal Collective‘s Merriweather Post Pavilion, its thoughtful adventurism and intriguing complexity still rewards the patient and attentive.

Like multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird, Markland Starkie is blessed with and cursed by intelligence. It seeps out with every note and each shifting arrangement. Thankfully, the album as a whole is a fair trade off between abstruseness and accessibility. There’s just enough here on first exposure to quickly transform debut listeners into fully immersed admirers, but it’s a close call.

Starkie’s closest comparable isn’t Bird, however, because In The Gardens Of The North isn’t really a collection of songs; it’s more like a loosely connected string of meandering moods. In a similar fashion to other sonic landscapers such as Zach Condon (otherwise known as Beirut) and Patrick Watson, Starkie’s music spends most of its time expressing itself with subtle key changes and rhythmic shifts. Starkie’s velvet-lined croon – imagine an overly-polite Scott Walker or a sedated Morrissey – warbles and vibratos over the music, almost incidentally, with lyrics sometimes feeling a little surplus to requirements.

The music itself is largely a repeat of the last Sleeping States album, There The Open Spaces. So it’s the same curious, if not totally unique, clash of jazz, folk and slightly noisier, guitar-based experimentalism. While it’s often a beguiling, panoramic sound, it never feels like a particularly intimate one – like a soundtrack without the comforting narratives of the accompanying film. But then complex music has always been harder to get to know. Couple the album’s intelligence (it’s hard to tell, but apparently this album is inspired by Kafka and WG Sebald) with Starkie’s vocal timidity, and it may not sound like the most attractive proposition.

All this being said, this is a record that is worth befriending. With time, the woozy, meandering melodies of tracks like The Next Village, Showers In The Summer and, particularly, On The Beach At Aldeburgh, which breaks up its dolorous Mogwai impression with a kaleidoscopic melee of barbershop harmonies, will start to make more sense than they ever seemed likely to. Starkie’s gentle and slightly eccentric barbershop jazz surfaces again during Gardens Of The South, which creates an effective lull before the album’s most pulsating jucture, the Radiohead-esque Red King, injects a little adrenaline.

At the risk of sounding like the Iain Duncan Smith of music criticism, this has been the year when relatively quiet music has stood up to (or stood in for?) the playground’s bullying noise merchants. With In The Gardens Of The North, Starkie has reinforced his status as a dream-weaver and not merely a conventional songwriter. Some of his chimerical innovation doesn’t come off, but when it does, it provides more hints at music’s possible new direction.

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Sleeping States – In The Gardens Of The North