With Sleeping Operator, The Barr Brothers have released one of the best sounding albums of recent memory. In fact, I'd say that this album is nothing short of a masterpiece. It has everything that I look for: killer grooves, hooky melodies, thoughtful songwriting, and creative soundscapes. The Montreal-based group brings to mind classic roots-rock legends like Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones, and Paul Simon, as well as modern indie folk rock groups like Wilco, The Decemberists, and Yo La Tengo. Listen above, via Spotify.
Brad and Andrew Barr, the brothers who used to be two-thirds of The Slip, make an excellent core of the group on guitar and drums respectively, but what really makes this band unique is Sarah Page on harp. Her presence can be subtle at times, but she provides incredible textures that sometimes sound like a banjo or mandolin and at other times sound like African or Asian stringed instruments. Multi-instrumentalist Andres Vial fills the quartet nicely, adding keys, bass, vibes, percussion, and vocals.
There are a few gems on the album, beginning with the opening of "Love Ain't Enough" and lead-in track, "Static Orphans." Straight off the top, the band is able to achieve a huge sound with lush production and a big drum beat. As waves of harp, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and horns sweep through and then drop out, it sounds majestic and beautiful. Brad Barr's vocals are imperfect as he reaches for high notes in the chorus, but that adds a human element that I personally dig.
Later in the album, "Half Crazy" is a fantastic and innovative take on classic Delta blues. The wailing vocals and guitar bring to mind Mississippi Fred McDowell's "You Got To Move" and Muddy Waters' "Rollin' Stone" (aka "Catfish Blues"), but this song's eastern vibe harkens back to the eastern drone influence that seemed to be perfected in the psychedelic rock landscape by Led Zeppelin. Not many harpists have taken on this realm, Alice Coltrane being probably the most well known to do so.
On this album, The Barr Brothers show an ability to start a song delicately and then have that song blossom into a powerful rockin' jam. As I listened to "Valhallas," it reminded me of Van Morrison's classic Astral Weeks album. Listening back, I felt similarly about "Even The Darkness Has Arms," "Come In The Water," "Little Lover," and "The Bear At The Window," all of which are really nice soulful tunes with layers of gorgeous harmony and surprising little twists that make them enjoyable in their own ways.
Mixed in, there are a few downtempo tracks that are no less impressive. "Wolves," "How The Heroine Dies," "Bring Me Your Love," and the album closer "Please Let Me Let It Go" are slow and heavy, evoking serious emotions. In particular, "Bring Me Your Love" has a scorched ashes feel that pivots from dark and heavy to light and hopeful in a way that shows a deft hand in songwriting.
My only problem with this album is that it's perhaps a little too long. I guess you could say I'm an old-school vinyl purist, but I don't think an album should ever be longer than 48 minutes unless it's a live concert recording or a truly epic double-LP. In this case, I believe it would have been a stronger album if two or three tracks were held back. In particular, "England" feels a little tedious toward the end of the record even though it's a nice sounding track.
Following The Barr Brothers' 2011 self-titled debut album, it's clear that the band has grown and gotten better. In a world with so many one-trick ponies in the indie, folk, and rock scenes, The Barr Brothers are proving to be a thoroughbred capable of breaking through. If you like organic music, this is a must-see concert when they come to your town.
For The Barr Brothers' latest music, news, and tour dates, check out their Zumic artist page.