Sleep Station – The Pride of Chester James
Record Label: Eyeball Records
Release Date: February 5, 2008
David Debiak, the man, mind and soul behind indie-pop shoegazer Sleep Station, has an affinity for concept albums. More obscure than your standard prog-rock epic, Debiak’s past narratives peddle in matters like robot relationships (Runaway Elba-1), being abandoned in space (Hang In There Charlie), necrophiliac love affairs (Von Cosel), and World War II (After the War). These dealings are not a cinch to conquer; Sleep Station albums are meant to be explored, weightlessly internalized and are a bit vague. This being said, The Pride of Chester James is no different. Gripping in storyline clues, the background of the cover art depicts a carnival ride swallowed by licking flames and a limp girl in the arms of a teared-up man. The back sleeve puts the two characters next to a garbage barrel brewing with fire, except they are nearly half its size. Are they the same people, or are they little people? Is she dead? And is this Chester James and if it is, why is he proud? Debiak lays down elusive hints in the Chester James concept riddle. As I finish this review and step back to reflect, I can't give you a play-by-play. But I can tell you that Debiak does majestic work.
Clear concept or not, that’s not the point. To sift into the gentle cinematography of the album’s acoustic rhythm, to appreciate the graceful arrangements and musicianship of Sleep Station, is to understand the plot line is only half the story. The overall feeling and texture of Chester James is an important chunk of the concept. Debiak’s vocals are careful and philanthropic, always soft even when they speed up or get louder, and the swirling instrumentals are the envelope to his message. The first song in the storyline, “Mr. Coughlin,” begins as a plucking, bass-y home-twanger about a girl named Anna (who later has her own song title). Halfway through, astronomical, spacey guitars and ethereal electronics twist the mood of the track into something more expansive and significant. This is not a static album. It could go in many different directions for many different people.
One of the most striking songs on the album, “Settle On Your Name,” keeps its dark melody close and reserved. Crashing all around it is a big-footed guitar chord with lots of fuzz. It’s a mean combo. “Tired of Me Now” is next, a country-crooner with CMT drawl and picking of a lap steel guitar. The transition between the two is flawless, which is an example of why Sleep Station understand the flow of concept projects. Even the most different of tracks are connected through one greater emotional bond between the main characters, but it’s a bond that’s difficult to put into words. Sometimes the best songs are impossible to put into words. And sometimes the best albums can’t be boxed in, only described and flourished in concepts. The Pride of Chester James is definitely one of these albums.
Towards the end, I begin to drift. The ending track “Our Carnival” is a strong closing signature, but “Fall” and “Always In The Fire” are paler next to the front of the album. The whole product clocks in around 41 minutes and surprisingly too. Besides these last couple tracks, there isn’t any filler and the album doesn’t drag its feet. Debiak, already cued in on good songwriting, plays producer duty with bandmate Ryan Ball. The special moments, clever riffs, vital melodies, structures and textures are thrust into positions where a listener can value their addition. As an album full of little knobs and special understanding, these minor parts are the whole picture. And since we are working with a concept album takes some puzzle-making, we need as much of the picture as we can get.