When we last heard from Winston Yellen – a.k.a. Night Beds – he was mesmerizing people, including myself, with his lush, acoustic/chamber pop on Country Sleep. The album was essentially a no-thrills compilation of songs, but it captivated due to the personal nature of Yellen’s songwriting and a gorgeous voice that just draws you in with each note and lyric.
On his new album, Ivywild, the 26-year old native of Colorado Springs practically abandons the acoustic aspect and heads into a synth-pop direction. It’s a big and adventurous leap to go from guitar- and piano-driven ballads to developing electronic arrangements that match his gorgeous voice and melodic approach. And for the most part, Yellen succeeds with the new sound, although there are hiccups on the journey.
On songs like “Corner”, “Tide Teeth”, “Melrose”, and “Moon Sugar”, Yellen is able to find a perfect harmony between his past self and his new life. The songs are lush and still feel intimate despite the incorporation of beats and synthesizers. “Moon Sugar”, in particular, brings together classical jazz and electronic elements into one terrific song. “Corner”, as well, sees Yellen at his cinematic best, where his voice is the star and his songwriting shines through, much like they were on Country Sleep (yes, I can’t say enough about his voice much like Wendy did in April).
Where Yellen runs into a bit of a trouble is when he goes synth heavy and towards a club scene. On these tracks, the beats and synths take over the songs and the songwriting suffers. Instead of telling vivid stories, Yellen resorts to the illness that plagues a lot of pop, electro-pop, and synth-pop artists these days – repetition. Take “Sway(ve)”, “[9-6] slack-jaw”, and “Eve A”. The restating of a few words and the stuttering beats mask Yellen’s voice, which acts more like another beat instead as the major vocal and melody component of the songs.
Not all the repetitious songs, however, suffer from this effect. “Me Liquor & God” succeeds because the beats and synthesizers are downgraded to a supporting role. There is repetition but there is also range in Yellen’s voice and a story of loss and desperation in the song. Same with “Seratonin”, which is largely an instrumental track and Yellen’s vocals are ghostly and hallowing.
At sixteen songs, the album is about 3 or 4 songs too long. With the new sound comes experimentation, and it seems Yellen shares everything he’s drafted. The songs at the end get lost because electronic and synthesizer fatigue sets in, resulting in some of the album’s stronger tracks, such as the aforementioned “Moon Sugar” and the groovy, R&B-esque “I Give It”, getting ignored. It takes repeated listens of the final half to truly appreciate some of the tracks.
Ivywild isn’t Yellen’s best effort under his Night Beds’ project. At the same time, it is refreshing to see Yellen attempting to stretch his limits, experimenting with new sounds and genres to determine how far he can push his songwriting and what he can do with his voice. There are some gems on the album, and Yellen shows a great knack of merging classical and electronic arrangements into a single song with great effect, such as the beautiful closer “Stand On My Throat”. But when he leans heavily towards the electronic and synth realms, a part of Yellen seems to get lost and overshadowed. That’s the last thing that should happen to a singer-songwriter as gifted as Yellen and with the wonderful voice he possesses. Chalk it up to a lesson in experimentation, and a step towards something that will likely be mind-blowing or extravagant.
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