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The National Lights - The Dead Will Walk, Dear

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Artist: The National Lights

Album: The Dead Will Walk, Dear

Label: Bloodshake

Review date: Mar. 5, 2007

The National Lights makes achingly pretty, traditionally-rooted songs that slip by you effortlessly the first couple of times you listen to The Dead Will Walk, Dear. The buoyant guitar work, laced occasionally with banjo and pedal steel, the whispery soft harmonized vocals – it all conspires to relax you, lull you, in a way that only preternaturally pretty music can. The band's first album will bring to mind a whole raft of Starbuckling folk types – Iron & Wine, Calexico, Gillian Welch. You might entirely miss the dark side for the first, the second, even the third spin. But while it's buried, the nightmare end of American traditional music is definitely here.

Consider the very first song, which opens with a gentle flurry of guitar picking and songwriter Jacob Berns crooning the solicitous lines, "Let me cover you up / In my buttoned flannel shirt." Surely a love song, right? Well … no, as it turns out – the girl in the song has been at least raped and maybe murdered. The tempo never picks up. The texture of the song never thickens. There is no musical signpost that signals trouble, except a pile-up of disturbing metaphors. The girl's skin is cold. Her skirt is missing. Her face is dripping blood. She's tired from all the praying she did. Berns' voice, which seemed lovely at the song's beginning, turns eerie as what has happened begins to sink in. "Don't make me say I'm sorry / Because in my heart I meant no harm," he sings, his partner Sonya Cotton lightly harmonizing. The disconnect between what's said and what's imagined makes the song chilling.

Beautiful songs about horrible things are, of course, nothing new. Berns says he took his inspiration from Southern gothic writers like Flannery O'Connor, but he might also have heard an Appalachian murder ballad or two. Still, there's a placidity to the arrangements, a calmness to the singing, that makes these cuts particularly disturbing. There's no percussion at all on this album, no sudden surges or cymbal crashes that would signal release. Instead the beat is held down by regular patterns of guitar and banjo, a rigorous framework that keeps emotional excesses in check. The songs flow steadily, serenely onward, like the rivers that pop up repeatedly in the lyrics. There's a sweet, almost lullaby quality to the cuts where Cotton takes lead vocals, her voice breathy and just touched with country vibrato. Her voice is so matter-of-fact lovely that it takes you back when you realize what she's singing about drownings, murder, ghosts and corpses.

The combination – of pretty serenity and murderousness – is disturbing. It's a little off-putting. But it's also the key to why the album works. Without that frisson, The Dead Will Walk, Dear would just be another half hour of pleasant music. With it, the CD becomes chilling and memorable.

By Jennifer Kelly

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