STRAYS DON’T SLEEP Strays Don’t Sleep (One Little Indian)

Matthew Ryan and Neilson Hubbard were songwriters from opposite sides of the Americana divide until, bonding over their shared admiration for The Blue Nile song “Over The Hillside”, they formed Strays Don’t Sleep. That Blue Nile meta-association is a double-edged cleaver, of course: any act that invokes the name of the most consistently, transcendentally wondrous band of the last quarter century is inevitably going to prove a bitter disappointment to paying customers demanding an album that sounds exactly like “Hats”.

Early listens suggest the comparison to be specious, however well-intentioned, Strays Don’t Sleep’s music initially sounding more like the chilly, cooling electronica singer-songwriting of Tim Bowness. But play it and play it – “Strays Don’t Sleep” needs all the airplay you can afford it, even if just functioning subliminally as background music – and a hint of a blush begins to permeate the initial, unrelenting frost.

Opener “Love Don’t Owe You Anything” is a gentle, jangling, plastic piano miniature. Breathy and intimate, surely even Paul Buchanan would be proud of lines like “There’s a glitter on the hills tonight”. “Pretty Girl” couches longing in lyrics of almost nursery-rhyme simplicity, although I have to admit to a sinking sensation every time they settle for an adjective as banal and empty as pretty. Still, these songs are given extra character by the Gomez-like polarity of the main duo’s voices, one silk smooth, the other hoarse and gruff, textured like a particularly healthy granary loaf.

“Martin Luther Ave.” pulses like a half-awake Aphex Twin, laced with minor key Tallk Talk piano, the lyrics zoning in on minutiae like “the cigarette crushed and stuck to the bottom of your show”. If Tindersticks embraced electronica and Americana they’d probably sound a whole heap like Strays Don’t Sleep. “For Blue Skies” shakes off its unprepossessing demo-like drum machine, becoming a brooding, wounded thing taking flight on Kate York’s backing vocals; it’s possibly the album’s highlight. There are more pseudo-Buchananisms on the Springsteen-through-the-microscope of “Cars And History” – “Rooftops and stars above/The smell of cold, dead leaves” – yet whereas Paul can take a hackneyed, worn phrase and paint it luminous, Strays Don’t Sleep aren’t there yet. The lines “I want you/How I want you”, for example, sound like punctuation here; Buchanan would turn it into a flood of hope and regret. That, more than anything, is why Strays Don’t Sleep aren’t, and maybe never will be, The Blue Nile. But they’ve got the gall and ambition to at least try to operate in the same airspace, so hats off to them for that.

A bonus DVD contains the album all over again but mixed in surround sound for the benefit of listeners blessed with 5.1 ears, with each track accompanied by its own film (don’t call them videos, whatever you do!). Being uncharitable – which, on initial plays of the album, I certainly had a mind to be – you could say that these visuals provide a welcome distraction from the music, although some – the monochrome shots of overhead cables and branches that decorate “Love Don’t Owe You Anything”; “Falling Asleep With You”’s aquarium-eye view of a Nashville sushi restaurant; the flickering flames that accompany “Martin Luther Ave.” – teeter perilously close to animated wallpaper. That which accompanies “Cars And History”, though, is disturbing and compelling, a “Belle De Jour”-style study of a schoolgirl’s destructive psychological trauma, made word by the caption “How far would you go to feel less alone?” that peppers the screen at its close. A bonus version of “Pretty Girl” expands the conceit of the original – essentially a camera observing a woman’s pre-going out preparations – into something friendlier and less dispassionately voyeuristic. Extending the concept to include several different subjects and interview fragments, it feels as if it’s been edited from a larger project scrapbook.