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SLEEPINGDOG – Polar Life (CD/digital, Gizeh)

Posted: October 9th, 2008, by Dave Stockwell

Sleepingdog cover

Chantal Acda’s Sleepingdog project has gleaned its second album, coming after the debut ‘Naked in a Clean Bed’ (2006). Predominantly based around her voice with spare accompaniment of piano and acoustic guitar, with occasional flourishes of synthesised strings, chord organs, xylophone, glockenspiel and some fantastically subtle electronic processing, it is a largely beatless and free-floating affair that will have some in rapture.

Acda contributed to Adam Wiltzie’s Stars of the Lid side-project The Dead Texan and he has repayed the favour by producing and contributing “soundscapes” to this album. It’s to his credit that the instrumental and understated textural variation maintains the listener’s interest throughout, pushing the focus away from the lack of rhythmic layers and towards Chantal’s voice.

And what a unique voice it is. Chantal sings in a very high register in a manner that instantly reminded me of múm‘s ex-vocalists, twin sisters Gyða and Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir (yes, that was cut and pasted from Wikipedia). What with PJ Harvey‘s recent falsetto-laden album White Chalk, you might think singing at the top of your register is all the rage, but Sleepingdog is a world away from the unsettling and upsetting beauty Harvey’s album. Yet other press have made numerous comparisons to Tori Amos. These are, frankly, laughable – Amos’ thunderous melodrama and range has nothing to do with the light, breathy vocals that bring to mind a reclusive child singing reluctantly to a crowd of one on display here. Are there not enough female singers in the world?

Anyway, so what about the album itself? Well, it starts out with a couple of fairly simple, melancholic songs with the piano front and centre. Acda’s double-tracked vocals tremble shyly, bringing to mind intimate surroundings and a fragile atmosphere. The third track starts a process of increasing productive inventiveness, hard panning the piano left and voice right and then throwing in some string sounds that make me wonder if someone’s nicked the synth that Led Zep used on “The Rain Song” (now there’s a comparison I wasn’t expecting to make). Soon after, gently tinkling glockenspiel and random samples of what sounds like snatches of a distant football crowd move in to really push the music to its highest point of unfettered beauty.

Four songs in, “The Sun Sinks in the Sea”, the longest track on the album, quietly modifies the prevailing mood with slow, stark stabs of piano chords accompanied by a spare, skeletal melody. A quietly brooding string accompaniment adds to the slightly unsettling atmosphere and creates perhaps the most satisfying track on the album.

The next two tracks, “Sunshine Daylight” and “When it Lies”, move towards a more straightforward and embracing tone, signalling a respite from the piano with a welcome change of texture in the form of acoustic guitar and backwards keyboard melodies. “Alleys” combines gently strummed guitar with what sounds like a tinny piano sound on a cheap keyboard (probably the result of lots of time-consuming real-time processing of a grand, but there you go), a wonderfully warm chord organ and xylophone notes. “Ardennes” benefits from a very timid drum machine – the first and only time that beats surface on the album, but it feels completely redundant when pitched against a regularly arpeggiated acoustic guitar. This song also marks the addition of occasional vocal harmonies that add a much-needed second dimension to the vocals.

This harmonising is an interesting case in point, because by this point in the album I had just about reached my limit with how much of the vocals I could stand. Acda’s insistently double-tracked timorous voice is quite wearing to my (admittedly, jaded) ears and by this point I wasn’t sure how much more I could take of unyieldingly quavering, mild and high singing. The meekness of it all is one thing; the double-tracking is another, and the two tracks where there is a single vocal sound far more affecting then pretty much all the other tracks. It may be just a minor point to some, but it was a potential deal-breaker to me, so when the vocal harmonies of “Ardennes” begin it gives the song a huge lift. It also makes me wish Acda did do more of this, as it makes the vocal lines both much more interesting and much easier to take in large doses. The final track, “If Only”, reinforces this with a male vocal (Wiltzie’s?) underpinning the entire song; creating one of the album’s strongest moments. Ironically, it turns out that this track is a deft cover of Sophia‘s “If Only” (from 1998’s ‘Infinite Circle’ album).

Overall, at its best, Sleepingdog and Wiltzie have created a record of occasionally  rarefied and refined beauty. However, the vocals and general austere ambience (a stated influence of Iceland seems eerily prescient, given these interesting financial times) are definitely not for everyone: give a couple of tracks on her Myspace page a listen and have a think for yourself whether you could comfortably recline in their presence for the duration of this full-length record. If so, you may well have found yourself a relatively unique and appealing album that could well be among the best you’ve heard this year.





Dave Stockwell

David can always be relied on to end his e-mails with one of those 'np: blah blah' things in order to remind us of how much more music he listens to every day than anybody else. His interests include rockin ' out in a major style as guitarist in Souvaris, throwing frisbees from tall buildings "just to see what happens" and simply kickin' back with his bitches in a gold-plated jacuzzi.


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