According to iTunes, I have 1556 plays of The Dead Texan’s “The Struggle” logged on my iPhone. I take this statistic with a glacier of salt; that’s 143 hours of “The Struggle,” and I don’t recall going on a six-day bender with the song. But like the other inflated play counts on my iPhone,* there’s a kernel of truth buried in that glacier. “The Struggle” is a perfect hybrid of dream pop and ambient, tailor-made to play right before I drift off to sleep. Even the lyrics, delivered in a hushed duet between Stars of the Lid’s Adam Wiltzie and guest vocalist Chantal Acda, encourage such behavior, reminding that “the sun cannot last.” A thousand plays—now that’s believable.
I’ve gotten considerable mileage out of The Dead Texan’s lone 2004 eponymous album, but I’ve had to, since Adam Wiltzie and Christina Vantzou have not reconvened for a follow-up. Sleepingdog offers a reunion of sorts, especially for those drifting off to sleep with “The Struggle.” Sleepingdog started out as the solo project for Chantal Acda, but Wiltzie became an official member after mixing the 2006 debut Naked in a Clean Bed. For 2008’s Polar Life and now 2011’s With Our Heads in the Clouds and Our Hearts in the Fields, Wiltzie has provided electronic strings and background vocals. It’s always nice to find another branch of the Stars of the Lid family tree, but this one was a particularly exciting discovery.
Does Sleepingdog live up to my unreasonably expectations for “The Struggle, Part II”? Yes and no. There are moments of somnambulist bliss, but that’s not the focus here. The Dead Texan was Wiltzie’s show—no slight intended to Vantzou, whose involvement was primarily seen on the DVD of videos for each song on the album. Likewise, Sleepingdog is Chantal Acda’s show. Her songs form the basis for any further aesthetic explorations. There are stretches of With Our Heads in the Clouds and Our Hearts in the Fields when it’s just her soft voice and minimalist piano. Eight-minute-long opener “The Untitled Ballad of You and Me” takes two minutes before Wiltzie’s presence is felt, allowing Acda’s storytelling to grab hold before chill-raising strings come in and amplify the drama of the song. For the minimal pop of “It Leaves Us Silent” and “He Loved to See the World Through His Camera”, the emphasis is on nearly naked emotion, which occasionally skews sentimental singer/songwriter over ambient-classical-informed lullabies. Reset your expectations to the mesmerizing slow-core crawl of Gregor Samsa's excellent 2008 LP Rest, and you'll approach With Our Heads in the right mindset.
There are a few songs that lean closer to The Dead Texan, specifically the instrumental “Kitten Plays the Harmony Rocket” and the near-instrumental “Horse Lullaby,” the latter of which offers a “Struggle”-esque economy of lyrics. These tracks satiate my appetite for drone classical, but those aren’t the songs I go back to. Instead, I find myself revisiting the tracks like “The Untitled Ballad of You and Me” and “Scary Movie” where Acda and Wiltzie meet halfway.
The realization that Sleepingdog’s With Our Heads in the Clouds and Our Hearts in the Fields excels when Chantal Acda and Adam Wiltzie find equal footing seems obvious in hindsight. I’ve gone back to the Dead Texan’s “The Struggle” so often because it’s a rare blend of both dream pop and ambient. When With Our Hearts splits its focus, emphasizing either Acda’s straightforward musings (with the acoustic guitar duet of "From Where It Was") or Wiltzie’s drones, it loses the power of the merger. When With Our Heads hits those passages of entrancing accord, however, it's compelling enough to keep me awake a while longer.
If you're interested in acquring a copy of Sleepingdog's With Our Hearts, you'll have to import the very limited vinyl pressing from Gizeh Records.