The three years since Montreal-based The Barr Brothers released their self-titled debut have been filled with anticipation to see what the diverse quartet would come out with next, and last week’s Sleeping Operator finally answered that question in stunning form. The group, who’ve always stood out for incorporating a harp into their folk and blues sound, have gone even further this time around by delving into their childhood lessons in West African drumming, finding even more obscure instruments to layer into their dreamy follow up.
From the mesmerizing opening notes of “Static Orphan” blending seamlessly into the catchy “Love Ain’t Enough,” the restraint on display builds formidably into the chorus, veering onwards with the simplistic lyrics. Twangy “Even the Darkness Has Arms” becomes essential listening as it’s rolling time, gentle vocals and riddle-like journey pull you firmly into the album’s illusions.
Still, it’s “How the Heroine Dies,” with it’s nods to Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Waltz,” that becomes the most penetrating song of the album. The slow, mournful tune feels quieter than the rest, demanding your full attention for all four minutes and bringing everything else to a commanding stop. And while there’s nothing particularly crafty about the chorus, “When the poet decides that the heroine dies, he commits original sin,” there’s a weight to the conclusion that fits the slow, waltzing rhythm and fills it with meaning.
There’s another half to Sleeping Operator that’s far more lively–a blending of West African drumming and classic blues that crashes up against these gentle tracks. And yet, for all it’s subsequent roughness in the face of that restraint, “Half Crazy” still comes out as delicious as the rest. The clapping beat, tinny vocals and occasional wail come from the same deep place, finding the common ground between the genres and getting right to the emotions that drive the music.
Sparse “Bring Me Your Love” is just as haunting, with searching vocals cooing over the brushings of a drum and yet with far more of a cutting edge to it than the lead up. Meanwhile “England,” another irresistible track, finds its fit with more common alt-folk as it marches over a steady, subdued beat.
For all that the album is sure to introduce some new elements, or at the very least revive some traditional ones, to contemporary blues, the languid stirring of closer “Please Let Me Let It Go” leaves the softer side of Sleeping Operator to linger on. The Barr Brothers’ use of the harp has always dictated a calmer, hushed sound but it’s also what gives so many of their tracks their rich, soul-searching pain, and that’s what’s at its finest here.
Top Tracks: “How The Heroine Dies”; “Even the Darkness Has Arms”
Rating: Proud Hoot + *swoop*