By Paul Casey
Full disclosure: John Lane and Christian Lipski are friends of mine. They have both written for this website. This is going to be a fair and biased review.
40 Sleeps is Expo‘s third album and follows the summertime joy of 2010′s She Sells Seashells with a mood far more in keeping with their debut, Playtime. “Dreaming of Bears” and its sleepy textures would have been particularly at home on that earlier album. Although things are on the downbeat, 40 Sleeps is not bleak or self-indulgent. The singer may be sad, but like Elvis Costello, is trying his darnedest to Get Happy!!!
Expo’s musical loves are very close to my own. We share a deep appreciation for the work of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys and those who are strongly influenced by them, such as The High Llamas. The intro to “The Fall of Tamale” recalls Wilson’s fixation on the cowboy experience during the Smile sessions. And indeed, the slightly absurd flavor of Paul McCartney and his skill at turning oddities like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” into golden pop songs is also apparent. If you can sing a song about bears and mean it, you’re doing something right.
Yet, it’s not simply the Doo Wop Lift Off or the abstract tales that are spun beside personal ones that appeals. It is the ability of John Lane and Christian Lipski—who wrote 40 Sleeps together—to turn their appetite for waves of voices, and adorable pop hooks into soundscapes which could, with a turn and twist, be transformed into effective instrumental/ambient music. This is certainly nighttime music, and even when an electric guitar shreds in for a moment, it is soon replaced by vibes and smooth harmonies that recall midnight drives, as on “Dixie Flatline.”
Lane and Lipski share vocal duties here as they do on much of the album, trading off verses. Lane’s voice, while occasionally gruff and rough and ready to roll, is emotive and suited to the material. This is most noticeable on “Your Father’s Son,” a song that you could have heard Richard Manuel/Rick Danko/Levon Helm singing in The Band.
40 Sleeps alternates between this kind of personal songwriting. the strange proposition of “Turtles All the Way Down,” and the bounce of “The Worst Is Over,” which feels like a disturbing dream where people’s backs open to reveal carnivals of pigs dressed as people. The kind of cheerful in which the brain defines itself, in its own strange dream logic. Or maybe that’s just me.
“Axehandle Hound” has a bit of Neil Young and Zuma about it. Barstool Blues, as that Canadian called them. Expo are joined here by Sean McCahill, who adds some nice guitar work and backing vocals. He also contributed to possibly the best track on the album, “Swear Jar,” which begins with a wonderful percussion section, and turns into a dream-shifting song. Organ, gentle electric guitar, and a fantastic lead vocal from Christian Lipski, all give the album its centerpiece.
40 Sleeps is a product of its influences, true. Yet, the #1 thing Expo took from them was how to make Carry On music. 40 Sleeps is an unpretentious work from people who want to spread the joy in music that overcomes. This is uplifting in the way that Randy Newman’s Sail Away was. It’s down, but it’s coming up. It is not what I would call “dark.”
Due to the album’s honest spirit of hope, some may have cause to snipe. Aren’t we all tired of the cynical blowhard who thinks that “dark” equals “mature” and “light” means “childish?” This is the reason why so many have failed to accept the importance of both Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. It is likely to be the reason why some may not listen to this record. Shame on them. For those who are not emotionally handicapped in this way, 40 Sleeps is a fine record, and should bring many happy nights.