Album Review: The Barr Brothers – Sleeping Operator

When The Barr Brothers made their folk rock debut in 2011, they secretly cast their listeners under a spell of harmonic vocals, careful strings, and obscure found objects. Like Local Natives, they put out an ambitious first record that stood on thorough craftsmanship, and after a three-year gap they had fans wondering if they would ever hear more. With their second album, Sleeping Operator, The Barr Brothers live up to expectations, if falling a hair short of their debut.

Brothers Brad and Andrew Barr, harpist Sarah Page, and multi-instrumentalist Andres Vial have crafted a transcendental album that nosedives right into your dreams. Xylophone notes patter through the opening track into “Love Ain’t Enough”, a soaring welcome that uses a three-note progression like a back-and-forth rallying call. Despite that immediate rush of blood, though, Sleeping Operator is restrained on the whole. The meticulous placement and production make each track feel carefully controlled, though not to the point of suffocating any spontaneity. The Barr Brothers’ orchestration depends heavily on angelic harp and unusual instruments, both of which act as elements of surprise.

Despite the album’s bizarre mix of instruments, The Barr Brothers never let you get lost in the chaos. The African stringed instrument the ngoni fits right in alongside the bongos, while a fan-made instrument called a “cardboardium” is just as entertaining as the upright bass. Blues number “Half Crazy” sees the band dropping twangy guitar lines over a series of hand-claps and metallic, grungy bass that gets grit between their toes. The whole thing feels too artfully done to have them rolling around in the mud; instead, they’re egging on a fierce, cultish dance, shaking with fevered joy. While country yawns “Wolves” and “England” amount to forgettable (if lush) filler, the rest is so creatively constructed (yes, that was a kitchen sink you heard) that it more than makes up for the lulls.

Sleeping Operator shaved 40 songs down to 13, many of which saw the help of Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, Patrick Watson’s band, and members of The Luyas. The end result is a mix of African influences and devilish American folk for dancing around the campfire. When the record wraps up with bedtime story “The Bear at the Window”, The Barr Brothers gently release their wand as the sun begins to rise, signaling the end of a long, whimsical dream worth retelling.

Essential Tracks: “Half Crazy”, “Love Ain’t Enough”, and “The Bear at the Window”


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