If you’ve even heard of this backroom-concept folk-rock band, you would know that Sleep Station albums are dark, lo-fi, and obsessed with strange stories seeming more at place in a fusion of twisted 1980’s B-grade science fiction and Tim Burtonesque romance, than an indie-rock folk album. While this manifestation of front man Dave Debiak’s schizophrenic artistic personality rarely packs the same seductive qualities as his 80’s synth-rock persona, New London Fire, there’s still a quiet charm that just might make you press repeat. When it comes to Sleep Station’s seventh release, The Pride of Chester James, quiet charm isn’t enough to transform this subtle love story tale of a circus drifter into a completely coherent and captivating musical story—but don’t throw the album away yet. While it isn’t perfect, it’s hardly worthy of a straight up/down witty hipster cult-referencing dissection or fawning, masturbatory love note.
The problem of The Pride of Chester James, is the same problem that seems to plague the majority of Sleep Station’s releases—you lose track of the story and songs. That’s not such a bad thing when it’s done in small doses, example: the Von Cosel EP which, in the span of five tracks, managed to tell a soft, haunting and slightly twisted love story, but Debiak’s grandiose artistic visions lose some of their punch when extended across an entire LP. While he says that he writes songs partially because he can’t make movies, the dark stories underlying Sleep Station’s cinematic releases never get fully explored. Debiak’s writing style tends to lean towards vague characterizations that lack a coherent and identifiable main character. This leaves the listener torn by the haunting lyrics, but completely unable to place these emotions within the context of a concrete artistic vision or framework. That may be a stumbling block but it just might also be the whole point.
“I know in the past my records have gotten a lot of shit for being concept records that are too vague in the story line,” said Debiak, in a Myspace bulletin. “I’d have to agree but only because I never tried to make a concept record. Every record I have done as Sleep Station has been thematic in its nature, not trying to tell a story but just create a mood.”
While I originally thought I understood Chester James, by the time I hit this paragraph I wasn’t entirely sure what to say. What do you do when your biggest problem with the music is the exact point that the artist is trying to make?
I dug up my copies of After the War and Von Cosel and put them on repeat as I drove around the backroads of Virginia and delayed doing physics homework for another hour. As I listened to “Elena,” and “Caroline, 1940” I remembered why I used to swear by this band. It wasn’t Debiak’s nicotine hook-writing ability that kept my finger from hitting forward, it was his talent at making your brain turn off, and your heart take control. The challenge is to create a mood that is ambiguous enough to still be a concept, yet focused enough for people to understand and slip into. When Debiak can walk that fine line, Sleep Station is something absolutely beautiful; other times the songs just flounder aimlessly.
Because Debiak says that he’s not trying to create a concept album, just a mood, the packaging and song titles seem to beg for some type of coherent understanding and interpretation. That’s what’s so frustrating about listening to the album. You’ll be whisked off into the carnival lifestyle in “Hello Mr. Coughlin,” a Springsteen/Garfunkel cross begging to be classified as Americana, and then you’ll lose all track of any story when you run into the meandering amnesia-inspiring “Under the Lights.” You hit the heartbreaking folk ballad, “Tired of Me” and then the dragging “Paris,” before the powerful lines, “and if it rains, there will be two of us alive” (in “Anna”). That’s what you get with The Pride of Chester James—a mixture of the mundane and the divine. When you’re not falling into the lush sweeping sounds of Debiak’s soaring voice or riding on top of the soulful folk ballads, you’re tripping over the unfocused songs that just never get going.
When other people close their eyes and fall asleep, the dreams dancing in their heads are perfectly defined 2.5 hour masterpieces with complete and coherent storyline for all characters running through their slumbering and drooling head—my mind doesn’t work like that. The ideas and shapes controlling my somnolent creativity rarely leave more than vague impressions when they finally fade out into the screaming morning alarm, but the absence of details doesn’t necessitate the emptiness of emotion. Sleep Station creates albums that belong in dreams; dreams that forgive missteps, meanderings and monochromatic melodrama. Take The Pride of Chester James as a dream, and you’ll enjoy every minute. If you have to open your eyes, you can’t help but wish that Debiak would turn his amazing talent at creating moods towards fashioning a complete, intricate story. It’s his artistic choice not to do so, but grab Von Cosel if you want to hear him at his mood-creating finest.
Nathan Martin is a Patrol music editor.
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