The Barr Brothers push the conventional limits of Western folk on their triumphant sophomore album Sleeping Operator. The Montreal-based experimental folk band invokes African rhythms while hitting bike-wheel spokes, swinging whirlygigs, plugging Sarah Pagé’s concert harp into vintage amps and reintroducing the old Romanian Gypsy trick of tying a piece of sewing thread to a guitar string to create weird haunting vibrations. Layering these sounds — all of which are equally audible thanks to Ryan Freeland’s superb production — creates a density that’s rare among mainstream Americana.
The true feat of Sleeping Operator rests in its ability to connect with listeners: Singer Brad Barr’s lyrics are clear enough so that narrative meaning can be heard even amid the wilder musical experiments. The opening instrumental “Static Orphans,” which morphs into the arresting “Love Ain’t Enough,” refutes the notion of giving up on love. Later, “Half Crazy” grapples with the daily moments of fleeting insanity, while borrowing from the raw blues of their self-titled album’s Blind Willie Johnson cover, “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying.” As drummer Andrew Barr’s rhythms loop and trip up one another, Brad’s vocals mimic his scorching guitar work as he moans, “We’re all half-crazy, half clear as a bell.” The fact that the Barr Brothers write such complex songs that can still be sung along to — from the most epic (the nearly seven-minute “Come in the Water”) to the sparsest ballad (closer “Please Let Me Let It Go”) — makes Sleeping Operator not only accessible, but emotionally resonant.