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Sleeping States
In The Gardens Of The North Adrian Lobb , September 18th, 2009 09:31

In the great canon of excuses, from 'the dog ate my homework' to 'the bus was late' or 'there were leaves on the line just north of Chipping Sodbury', blaming a piece of recorded music for the slow formulation of its review is one of the poorer efforts. The second (official) long player from Sleeping States has indeed been on the shelves of all good, independent outlets now for a number of weeks. It is a terrific piece of work, and has been played here a good deal. However, the hypnotic effect of these songs, recorded in a shack in the woods around Bristol and occasionally punctuated by birdsong, is no more likely to get the nation working than the latest Conservative Party welfare reform policy.

Indeed, since the record has been available, Sleeping States supremo Markland Starkie (a one-time one-man band, he has lately added supporting musicians to the line-up) has found time to tour the UK and contract swine flu. Still, better late than never, eh? Despite its back-to-nature recording, the production here is more overt than on previous releases. Still determinedly lo-fi, but high-concept and studied, with a tremendous degree of craft, this is the sound of an expensive musical education being put to use in the most unexpected, experimental fashion.

'Rings of Saturn' begins the album with just Markland's voice plaintively ringing out, before hypnotic looping bass and guitar refrains build, off-kilter drums crash in and crows' craws and synths augment the sound in an uncanny mash-up as it swirls heavenwards. 'Baroque folk art-pop' barely does it justice.

Deceptively complex Starkie's haunting musical arrangements may be, but Sleeping States is chiefly remarkable for his voice — at once fragile and strong, deep, warm and floaty-light, a voice that to be fully appreciated needs to be experienced with eyes closed. Only then can its depth and subtlety, which variously recalls Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright and perhaps even Antony Hegarty, be absorbed.

Movement, roaming, yearning, departing and arriving are constant themes. "All my life I've been running / And it takes so long to settle in" he sings as 'The Next Village' begins. If nothing quite reaches the heights of the first official SS 7" single, the stunning AA side 'Rivers' / 'London Fields', there is no danger of this voice getting lost in the woods. 'Gardens of the South', the stand-out (and indeed the cassingle drawn from the LP), reprises the breathy, looped vocal harmonies that first mesmerised audiences a few years back.

A song of such subtle strength can inevitably lead to a slight feeling of drift as the album progresses, evoking the same bleak melancholia as Bonnie 'Prince' Billie's 2006 film, Old Joy. Still, Starkie puts the folk into Suffolk with the track 'On The Beach at Aldeburgh', while found sounds catch the ear on 'A Spiral Not Repeated'. The overall effect is captivating and rewarding.

So much so that when the final, relatively bustling pop track 'The Cartographer' drifts off into the ether, the shock of the silence is quite startling. As though awakening from a wonderful, but ultimately impossible to remember dream, the listener is transported back to reality — happy, uplifted, and warmed by an experience just out of range of recall.