- To accuse ambient music of lacking dynamics is generally to miss the point, but the best practitioners of the form often manage to evoke sweeping emotional and sonic changes from relatively minor dynamic shifts. Given its usual reticence, stillness and polish it can be hard to vary things enough to give the listener something worth coming back to, but California's Clayton McEvoy mostly succeeds in doing so on Cradlesongs, a concise, precisely calibrated set of guitar-based ambient music.
The opening "Empty Cradles" doesn't get things off on the right foot, marrying an acoustic guitar melody with synthesizer ebb and flow in a blandly picturesque kind of way. It seems as if the album can be consigned to the ranks of the middling until McEvoy delivers two fantastic, compelling songs that up the ante. "First Cell, First Love" layers what sounds like a string quartet under a patiently seesawing piano melody, and as the string drone slowly subsumes the rest of the track a brief, gentle guitar refrain begins interweaving with the piano. The result is both gorgeous and intriguing, and as the piano fades out and the track glides to a halt it's hard not to be impressed with just how much McEvoy does here with minute alterations of volume and emphasis.
"Tired Hearts" hinges on a similarly subtle transformation. It begins with a limpidly attractive guitar/bass interplay playing a gracefully cyclical melody, one so stately it's almost tender in its patience. Mostly the song just continues the soft repetition of melody, and the first few times you hear it you might not consciously notice how the flanged guitar (calling to mind Mogwai's "Helicon 1") takes over the second half, billowing softly under the descending notes. The way the extra guitar spends much of the middle part of the track doubling and redoubling itself lends unexpected layers of beauty and even drama to the song.
The rest of Cradlesongs isn't quite as sublime as that duo, but it regularly approaches those heights again, with the sumptuous, one-note-at-a-time cello in "Here in the North," the muted guitar distortion roiling gently under the surface of "Invasive Gravel Road," the closing Stars of the Lid grandeur of "The Rattle in Our Throats" or the way the brief "Pride and Fall" eventually drops its shimmering, shivering surface in order to let its rounded melody stand alone in a moment of pristine focus.
While the bulk of Cradlesongs errs towards the pleasant, it's still a very satisfying debut. McEvoy is insightful enough in his melodies and his sense of sound design that there's a lot here to like, and the best songs reward the kind of deep engagement that ambient music is so perversely good at engendering. If he can advance on the strengths of the best tracks here, Sleeping Me's next album could be a classic.
01. Empty Cradles
02. First Cell, First Love
03. Tired Hearts
04. Legs Like Gravestone
05. Egdon Heath
06. Pride and Fall
07. Here in the North
08. Invasive Gravel Road
10. The Rattle in Our Throats