Happy third anniversary to Harry Towell’s Whitelabrecs, which is celebrating the occasion with a landmark 50th release. Since January 2016, we’ve become enamored with these limited run CDs that look like baby records. Sleeplaboratory1.0 includes a disc-sized facsimile of an album sleeve. The themed release gathers 16 artists, all inspired by sleep; the disc is meant to be “particularly calming for babies,” as Towell is a new father (congrats, Harry!) in immediate need of such a helpful resource.
But what if you’re not a baby? No problem. The album is meant for us all, especially those who struggle with sleep. (For example, I live in a town whose lights shine on all sides of my house throughout the night.) Towell’s go-to album for this purpose has been Janek Schaefer’s Lay-by Lullaby. He was over the moon when Schaefer agreed to compose the compilation’s opening track. “Night in Narnia” incorporates footsteps on snow, making an instant connection to the classic book. The track possesses a dreamlike tone underlined by a crackling fire, distant traffic, and a patient drone. The music provides a passage to a different form of consciousness, whether sleep or daydream. Such liminal touches visit throughout, next surfacing with the birds, bells and disjointed cries of Natse’s “Wandering Spirits.” Other times the rocking repetitions suffice; Svan Laux’s appropriately titled “Sleep in C Minor” is a quiet boat on a sea of strings.
But what if you’re neither a baby nor an insomniac? These tones produce something an essential feeling of calm. The outside world is loud and demanding; this music is soft and unassuming. Yet counterintuitively, it’s also powerful, because it can tame one’s emotions, lift one’s mood and affect one’s outlook. Sleeplaboratory1.0 offers respite to the beleaguered and solace to the bereaved. It’s a prime example of how people use ambient music: not as mere background, but as essential tool.
The challenge: “create something vacant which is likely to induce sleep.” Few other topics would lead to an album of such smooth sequencing. In effect, the contributors were asked not to stand out, but to be part of a whole. And yet their approaches differ, from the subdued post-rock guitar of M. Grig to the soft whooshes of Maps & Diagrams. And while repetition is key, movement is necessary to prevent tedium; check for example the growth from the start to the finish in Ben Rath’s “A Quiet Morning.”
We’re happy to hear some familiar artists, from Tropic of Coldness to Valotihkuu (who we discovered through Towell). But the names are less important than the effect. At 77 minutes, this is a long album, long enough to thwart even the stubbornest earworms and ruminations that normally plague attempts to sleep. As the album progresses, it seems to grow even gentler, with fewer field recordings ~ nothing to startle one awake. When such recordings are used, they blend right in, like the waves that conclude Daniela Orvin’s “Wide Ocean” or the buoy bell of James Osland’s “Making All Things Dimly Beautiful.” Does the little one like it? Harry hasn’t told us yet. Our guess is that father, mother and child are all asleep wherever they were when the music started to play. (Richard Allen)