Night Beds' debut full-length album, Country Sleep, showcases the kind of musical and emotional depth normally reserved for an older, more established singer-songwriter.
But the band's frontman and songwriter, Winston Yellen, is only 23. He has been playing music for about five years and performing for only months. Even he is a little unsure how he landed a record label and a national tour that has included appearances on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and NPR's Tiny Desk. An international tour comes this spring.
"I just kept fumbling around and kept exploring and ended up making music, but I still don't really feel comfortable with calling myself a musician," Yellen says. "I'm just a normal guy."
The new album, however, tells a different tale — one of a talented musician singing of the heart- wrenching pain and regret of a young man searching and a young love lost. The music is dark and haunting but at times hopeful.
Yellen opens the album with Faithful Heights, effortlessly singing a cappella: "When the sorrow comes/ And you don't know why/ Come into my arms/ I'll hold you through the night/ And in the morning light/ We'll be sure to find/ A kind of love so strong/ It will make us cry/ Faithful heights."
From the beginning, it is Yellen's tenor that draws you in. He showcases a vocal flexibility that, in its imperfections and rawness, opens him up emotionally and fearlessly. His voice is sincere and moving, melancholy and comforting.
Even on Ramona, the most radio-friendly, poppy song, Yellen's vocals take flight at the end of the standard melody-chorus, and he adds a high-pitched tagline, stretching his vocals in a way that implies a willingness to put himself out there.
Yellen wrote the songs and recorded the album in Nashville in less than a year, and Dead Oceans, an independent label in Texas whose roster includes the Tallest Man on Earth, signed him.
"This definitely feels very much over our heads in the best way possible," Yellen says of his success. "It feels like the big leagues, and I'm more of a slow-pitch sort of softball guy. I'm trying to hit a 90 mph fastball."
Production on Country Sleep is thick at times with such instruments as strings and lap steel guitar or with vocal harmonies, but it's never so crowded as to steal the show from Yellen and his piercing voice. His four bandmates subtly add to the songs with clearly defined parts. On 22, the lap steel guitar moans along with Yellen's vocals, and a memorable, melodic guitar line cuts through Ramona.
The record has an alt-country, Americana vibe a la Ryan Adams. But Yellen's vocals are more akin to Jeff Buckley's emotive pipes.
"I'm just a guy who writes songs and tries to write stories," Yellen says. "I'm really fascinated with underbelly kind of stuff. That's just who I am and that's how I try to go about working, trying to make beautiful music out of things that are very dark. ... Hopefully something happens where something dark can be seen in a different light or a different context."
Even If We Try is the darkest song on the album, and it's accompanied by a disturbing video, starring Yellen as a hopeless drunk at a party. Adding to the relentlessly sad vibe is a beautiful string arrangement that could stand alone. Like many of Yellen's songs, just when you think you've had your emotional fill, the song turns to a lighthearted melody, creating some confusion, but also a catharsis, like having a good laugh after a funeral.
"For me, that song's super dark. It's probably one of the saddest songs I've written," he says. It's about "that loser at that party. ... I resonate and relate to people like that."
Yellen has had his personal speed bumps here and there: He dropped out of college. He broke up with a girl. He spent a few months on the road living out of his Subaru until he decided to move back to Nashville and write songs. He doesn't dwell on that and doesn't romanticize it. Rather, he simply calls it his "quarter-life crisis."
"Overall, I think people do get bummed that I'm a normal, nice guy," Yellen says. "They want me to be something that I'm not. ... I realize some of my problems are kind of high-brow, college dropout loser. I get that. It's not Third World issues. But everybody's got their (stuff), and we all go about it in different ways. I just made a record."