by Chance Solem-Pfeifer
Labeling a record “sleepytime music” can be a dicey business. Sometimes it’s a designation doled out as an insult, as if to say an artist isn’t good for anything but losing consciousness.
Sure, Zach Short’s album Sleep Sounds is easy on the ears with the singer/songwriter’s liquid voice and patient guitar work, which dips a toe in jazz before dancing back to pop. But if there’s sleep to be had with Short’s effort, it’s full of protracted, sweet dreams.
“I love you like an old Polaroid and Christmas lights / I love you like when I was younger and I’d wreck my bike,” Short writes in the album’s opening track, “Picture Frames.” Yes, the sentiments expressed throughout this record are optimistic, dreamy and infectious with music that almost can’t be considered separately.
And like a good fiction writer draping sensory fog over a dream scene, the reverb and perceptible haze and distance in Short’s recordings make them motile. His experience working with other Omaha musicians, including his band, In Love, is noticeable in subtle imprints all over the record, from the gentle snare on “Charleston” to the seamless harmonies with Ally Rhodes on “Bright Lights” to some ambitious strings in “So Simple” to mountains of layered guitar. What’s more impressive, though, is that the arrangements are thematically purposeful.
“Like Rain” features rolling percussion just before stormy lyrics, like a sweeping and peaceful take on Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.”
“Caroline” and “Charleston” is a charmed and then yearning one-two punch, laden with blended place/person imagery. There’s every reason it shouldn’t work, but the vague and happy haze of it all is enough to make the listener stop and consider it’s no great stretch to connect places and people so deeply we forget which is which. We do it all time.
And in the minute it took to consider that, we’re halfway through “Grace In Gravity” and Short is crooning about Eskimo kisses to remind us that these songs are twisting time into something that doesn’t make sense in the waking world, but lives alongside nice memories and agreeable nostalgia.
At the center of it all, though, is just Zach Short, with a sugary voice and the guitar he’s learned how to play by plopping down his fingers and seeing where the strums and picks take him. Although the recording and arrangement of Sleep Sounds lasted for more than a year, the record feels as patient as it does deliberate. The capstone song, “Thanks For All You’ve Done,” is a simple and clearly strummed expression of gratitude, as if to beckon the listener out of a 12-track, 42-minute dream. But reentry is allowed (and encouraged) anytime.
If there’s a fault to this effort, it must be that it’s easy to forget where one song ends and another begins. If considered in three- or four-minute segments, the songs can become unmemorable. But then again, it’s hard to fault a record for not doing something it may never have set out to do. It’s an album with broad brushstrokes and extended movements.
Looking for the finite details could be as ultimately unnecessary as searching for a single moment in a long and wonderfully pleasant dream.
Chance Solem-Pfeifer is a Hear Nebraska contributor. He's preparing for another semester as arts editor at the Daily Nebraskan as well.