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Sweet Lights - Sweet Lights

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Artist: Sweet Lights

Album: Sweet Lights

Label: Highline

Review date: Jul. 5, 2012

Sweet Lights is the solo moniker of Shai Halperin, who has done time with the likes of Daniel Johnston and The War On Drugs. Both Johnston and TWOD are known for using guts, humor and personality to make their often-referential material rise above cliché, but on his debut self-titled album, it’s as if Halperin has crafted a record that doesn’t sound like it was made by anybody. There’s a really specific type of bland, mid-tempo rock and roll that I will forever associate with sitting in a movie theater, waiting for the film to start. Neko Case’s more recent solo material, for example, falls into it. Sweet Lights, particularly plodding numbers like “You Won’t Be There,” falls into it as well.

On lead single “Endless Town,” (and again on “Ballad of Kurt Vile #2”) Halperin sings “When I finally lost my mind / I wasn’t young / but it was time.” The ostentatious production values on Sweet Lights, however, make it pretty difficult to believe lyrics about mental instability, drinking every night, and living in squalor. I don’t mean to make any assumptions about his personal history, but Halperin can play, and he definitely knows what he’s doing in the studio. He seems to have used both of these skills to erase any flaws or humanity that might have otherwise made their way into his album. It makes perfect sense that other musicians have wanted him in their corner. However, too many of these songs are arranged like sketches of pop classics, polished to oblivion in the studio. As Sweet Lights goes on, its lack of personality becomes more and more apparent. Rather than the atmosphere of a sideman confidently stepping to the fore, or that of a personal, low-key record that David Pajo might make, Halperin opts for the middle of the road at every opportunity.

Towards the end of the album, however, we get “Ballad of Kurt Vile #2,” which is just a slightly modified version of “Endless Town,” but arranged in the roomy, minimal style of Halperin’s buddy Kurt Vile. It’s a rare and welcome moment of poise on Sweet Lights, and it’s followed up with “Tell Us All About It,” which consists of nothing but one hyper-harmonized line: “Tell us all about it / tell us about the war.” Burying the album’s most strange, interesting material underneath so many flavorless tunes displays the kind of vague contempt for the audience that can come off as really funny and great on an ultra-polished album like this (cf. Jim O’Rourke), but Sweet Lights ultimately fails to break through in that regard. Even Sweet Lights’s off-kilter material comes off as studied as the rest of the album.

By Joe Bernardi

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