Having never heard of Sleep Station before, I was pleasantly surprised by the CD The Pride of Chester James, a concept album revolving around, you guessed it, Chester James, a fictional circus drifter who shows up in a small town. The music documents the ups and downs James has in this town in rock opera fashion.
Sleep Station is the alter-ego of David Debiak, a man who is notorious for writing concept albums, such as the one about a robotics engineer falling in love with a robot he created (Runaway Elba-1); two astronauts being abandoned by ground control and left to die in outer space (Hang In There Charlie); the love story of Dr. Carl Von Cosel, a famous necrophiliac who fell in love with his deceased patient, Elena Hoyos (Von Cosel); and a first person drama taking place in World War II (After the War).
Apparently the recording, mixing and mastering process of his latest, The Pride of Chester James, was scattered over the course of three years amidst “tours, mental breakdowns, and all of the other wonderful obstacles life has to offer.” In a finished basement that stylistically hadn’t changed since 1975, Debiak and company brought the album to life with the help of a borrowed vintage tape machine, Hammond organs, pianos, Rhodes, Wurlitzers, and some old guitars and amps.
Debiak, who not only contributed vocals, guitar, piano, percussion and ham radio, but also produced the album with Ryan Ball, is joined on the album by Ball on guitar, drums, keyboards, wurlitzer, lap steel, mandolin, bass, piano and field recording; Brad Paxton on guitar, vocals, drums, piano, mellotron and keyboards; Kris Ricat on guitar and drums; Josh Nichols on bass and piano; Jason Debiak on paino and percussion; Richard Polatchek on trumpet and percussion; and Vahak Janbazian on drums.
The album starts with an upbeat “Hello Mr. Coughlin,” a Beatles-esque tune that morphs into a Pink Floyd-sounding song. The second track, “Under the Lights” shows a darker side to both James and the album, and mixes in some great piano and acoustic guitar notes. The third track, “What You Hide,” features a blend of guitar and piano that may never reach a radio audience, and that’s a shame, because it’s melancholy alt/pop through and through.
“Settle On Your Name” is the next track, which is dark and moody before bursting into fuzzy, jangly, loud and angry guitar melodies. It’s followed by “Tired of Me Now,” with lots of twang and a lap steel guitar. After the brief “Bells,” I very much enjoyed “Paris” and its pop/folk sound.
Anna, who is mentioned in the first track, gets her own song in “Anna,” a twangy bit about death, which is followed by the nature-inspired, brief “Thunder.” Rounding out the remaining tracks are the pretty, soft “Hell Has Come With Me”; the alt/country, catchy, Wilco-y “Fall,” which makes great use of horns; the briefest of brief, gulp of air and background noise “Distance”; the magical, swirly-sounding, organ-filled “Always in the Fire”; and the lovely and upbeat “Our Carnival,” of which the words are not as bright as the sparkly melody.
Debiak has admitted that he writes songs partially because he can’t make movies, which could explain the attempt at cohesive storytelling that seems to fall short through his music and lyrics alone. However, as he says in a Myspace bulletin: “Every record I have done as Sleep Station has been thematic in its nature, not trying to tell a story but just create a mood.”
In that case, Debiak is successful, as the mood I felt when I finished listening to The Pride of Chester James was one of puzzled enjoyment—I really dug the music, as long as I didn’t try to piece the songs together into a story.