He has the voice, he has the band, he even has the back story. From what we’re told, Winston Yellen is Night Beds, and Country Sleep is the debut album that’s widely tipped to achieve for him exactly what Bon Iver / For Emma, Forever Ago did for Justin Vernon.
The similarities are striking. A remarkable voice; a collection of sparse love songs awash with regret and loneliness; and time spent on the road bereft of love or livelihood. All this as a precursor to a period of isolated song writing. No snow encrusted cabin for Yellen, though. Renting a Nashville home formerly occupied by Johnny Cash seems to have provided more fruitful inspiration.
Yellen’s voice has an instant, irresistible effect. It’s clear, powerful and plaintive. There’s more than a tinge of sadness in every vowel, but the unaccompanied vocal of Faithful Heights opens the album with a positive spirit. In contrast Ramona is a breezy call to adventure that’s delivered with a sumptuous electric / acoustic guitar mix and intense drums. The effect is mistily mirrored in the rather more gentle 22, with its scene setting percussion and a sound contemporary enough to lift Night Beds clear of any alt-country labelling that would stick. In Even If We Try there’s a surprise jaunty conclusion and no shortage of Yellen’s athletic vocals, capable of switching from a keening cry to a mournful howl at the drop of minor key.
Winston Yellen is, predictably, being compared to just about everyone; from Bon Iver, to Rufus Wainwright meets Ray Lamontange. His American roots influences span decades with Borrowed Time even gently harking back to Roy Orbison’s finest days. But he also seems to comfortably present himself across a range of genres. Wanted You In August drifts around like aimless melancholy country-pop while the closing TENN seems to offer more genuine, inventive talent than any other song – both in it’s poetry and its delivery.
It could be claimed that beneath the keening vocals Country Sleep is a fairly conventional collection of country songs. It could also be asserted that this album holds more promise than substance. But that’s exactly what we should expect of a debut from a 23 year old singer / songwriter. Country Sleep is liberally peppered with sequences that take it beyond the obvious tags. The widespread but subtle use of electronics results in an abundance of atmospheres that are keenly felt but barely noticed – that takes some craft. My only complaint is that the contributions from the band themselves are over shadowed by the attention paid to Yellen’s voice. Ben Kaufmann’s production is as crisp, clear and accomplished as his guitar work; Chris Kimmerer’s percussion is an essential aspect of the overall sound and Aly Holland’s backing vocals act as a soft counterpoint to Yellen’s. This album has appeal and will instantly call out to a new audience. If this is even a hint of what Winston Yellen can offer in the future, then his future looks very bright indeed.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Country Sleep is released on Dead Oceans Feb 4th 2013