CD Review of The Dead Will Walk, Dear by The National Lights

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The Dead Will Walk, Dear
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Released: 2007
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Remember the good old days of folk music? Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Dylan before he got good…yeah, those were the days. Folk music is an important part of that whole “Americana” trip. It details in song where we came from, where we are, and where we’re goin’. Like Euell Gibbons eating a big heaping helping of Grape-Nuts, folk music is about the land, the people, the giving and the reaping. Loss and life, life and death. You know, all those great dichotomies that can only be expressed with an acoustic setup and some lilting harmonies.

Yeah, the good old days, indeed. Nowadays, you still have that old fashioned folk thing going on in some circles, but like everything else, the genre has expanded to meet the needs of those listeners who want something more down to earth but aren’t into that old folkie regime. Such more recent acts like Devendra Banhart have created this whole “Freak Folk” scene that owes as much to Captain Beefheart as it does to Woody Guthrie. Alas, the good Captain himself was an original, and you can’t always go back again, no matter how good your albums might be (I’m lookin’ at you, Old Time Relijun).

But to step back a bit even from that, we have the National Lights, a soft-spoken group with a penchant for taking the folk and making it into something somewhat different, if by “different” we mean pop-minded. The “group” as it were is mainly the work of Jacob Thomas Berns and Erenest Christian Kiehne, Jr., who do all the playing and most of the singing. The duo is augmented by a third member, Sonya Cotton, who adds her vocal harmonies every now and then to lend a woman’s touch.

The first song here, “Better for It, Kid” is actually a bit of a stunner. One of those things that sounds instantly familiar and perfect. The melody is both haunting and pretty, and Cotton’s harmonies add the right icing to the cake. The lyrics are obtuse and surreal, offering up such thought-provoking moments like “Let my tongue cut your cheek / And catch the blood before it falls / ‘Cause it’ll dirty up your feet.” It’s weird and it works quite well.

That said, the rest of The Dead Will Walk, Dear is a bit of a humdrum experience. The National Lights like to get in and out with their songs, and while this makes listening to the overall album a snap, you’re also left with the feeling that more could have been accomplished. The arrangements at times are so delicate that they’re almost skeletal, making the album sound more like a nice demo disc of tunes rather than a completely thought-out album. It’s also no help that the instrumentation here, eclectic as it may be with bells, E-bow guitar, banjo, synth and the like, all start sounding the same from track to track.

Still, songs like “Buried Treasure” and “O, Ohio” do have a distinct charm about them that keeps the listener tuned in at least the first time around. On the whole, the National Lights are likable, yet average. Yet there’s definitely a spot for this album on those shelves of listeners who like a bit more esoteric stuff in their collections. It’s kinda folky, kinda poppy, and just weird enough to stand out amongst other discs of its ilk. It could just be a whole lot more than that. Perhaps that will happen with the next release. Or not. You’ll just have to keep your ears tuned in.

~Jason Thompson