Sunday, July 22, 2007

Murder! Zombies! Take to the Hills!

The National Lights
The Dead Will Walk, Dear
Bloodshake Records

Rating: Much better than that Zodiac movie with Jake Gyllenhaal. And shorter. And much, much better.

The Dead Will Walk, Dear
comes on slowly. You barely even notice it at first. But little by little, moment by moment, it grabs you. Until suddenly, when you realize it just might be your favorite album of the long, hot summer.

And then, after repeated listens, you notice something else. It's really, really creepy. These songs are about murder; and quite possibly, necrophilia. At the very least, statutory rape. And then you can't decide if it's good or not anymore. But damn if it's no less beautiful.

It's impossible to recognize things like this at first. Case in point, The National Lights sound quite pleasant upon first listen. Maybe a little too folk-pop in places -- Jacob Thomas Bern's voice just a little too clear and AAA friendly -- the sorts of things that make you think "nice album," but not necessarily one you'll be playing a month from now.

Well guess what? I said that, too. And I was wrong. Who doesn't like folk song cycles that may or may not be about a Midwestern serial killer? Not me. Or is that not not me. I can't be sure. About anything anymore, really. Other than this is not a "nice album."

The Dead Will Walk, Dear is a dangerously quiet recording, with plenty of gentle guitar picking, easy accompaniment from organ and lap steel, and the occasional banjo or mandolin bridge. Burn's voice is a little too earnest at times, which makes Sonya Cotton's stunning backing vocals all the more important. They lift the songs from easy fluff-folk to gorgeous, neo-Gothic duets. It's amazing what a little estrogen can do to a song, especially ones as dark as these.

Dead Will Walk's
first two tracks breeze by with barely an ear-prick (unless you attentively pick out the beastly frightening lyrics), but it's track three, "The Dead Will Walk," where things suddenly become interesting. Burn sings of love and loss and murder and lost loves murdered throughout the entire album, but it's track 3's gentle hymn-like organ lines, lazy electric flourishes and well-placed banjo picking make the song hum. Like Rosie Thomas' "Why Waste More Time," the song proves that more can be less can be more. And then it's over in three minutes flat. Bummer.

But what comes next tops it: "O, Ohio." Cotton really steps things up here, with some dazzling backing vocals, accented quite nicely with the sparse sounding lap steel interludes between verses. It's a track that begs to be repeated, over and over and over. "Riverbed" continues the slide guitar trend, albeit with a bit more pep, as Bern sings of floods, drownings and growing old. Two tracks later we find another slice of small town life, "Midwest Town," which glides effortlessly on pump organ for two minutes and thirty-three seconds of near-eschatological new-folk-rapture. Like Dan Deacon for fans of Dirty Linen. Oh so pleasant.

There are missteps. "Buried Treasure" and "The Water Is Wide" are attempts at wicked cheerfulness that mostly fall flat. They're still generally pretty, but in the midst of so much dark matter, they get away from what makes a good folk ballad a good folk ballad -- keeping the music as depressing as the subject matter.

And yet, as much as I like this album, I have the feeling that anyone trying to pull off a project like this is likely more than a little bit pretentious. Maybe that's not my place to say. But I can imagine kids like this in some of my Lit classes in college -- the kind of people who had something good to say every now and again, but who you really had no interest in talking to outside of class. I guess this is what they do after they graduate. Write gorgeously morbid murder sequences. But who am I to judge?

"Swimming in the Swamp" rights the boat, with actual piano. Nearing the end of the album, it's almost a surprise to hear it thrown in, even if it's just a couple of chords every measure. But they do the trick, as we're given another song about water and drowning and death. And I'd like to think the subject matter works, given that the album is only 27 minutes long. Any longer, and there would be too many songs, and too much Southern Gothic, for the album to hold up. Yet it does.

Bern doesn't fall prey to album-lengthening tricks -- like padding his songs -- which happens all too often in folk music. His songs are simple, and don't need three or four verses, or the chorus repeated ad naseum, or guest guitar spots for extended soling. This is simple stuff. And this is dark stuff. Bern admits it with the brevity of his works. And with that brevity, they're better because of it.

The albums closer -- "Killing Swallows" -- tries to toe the quiet-loud line that permeated post punk circa 1989, albeit much mellower. The song consists only of one verse, followed by two minutes of heavy strumming and e-bow histrionics. It's both a terrible closing and a perfect one. It's not a great song, but it works here. And due to Dead Will Walk's conciseness, you barely notice. If you're like me, you're probably already skipping back to previous tracks, trying to decipher lyrics and relive great heights, that's it hard to remember just when this album actually ends.

So maybe it's not a great record, but with so many great moments, and with so much to digest in so little time, you'll be hard-pressed to tell the difference. If quiet songs of murder and villainy turn you on, then The National Lights are right up your alley.

National Lights' Space (seriously, listen to them, now)

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