What makes Stars of the Lid, the Austin, Texas ambient duo, so damn good at what they do is an almost intangible quality that can really only be aptly summarized by the oh-so-vague: they just feel it, man. This is to say, they just know how to build their layers of ambience to just the right texture, how to put that key change in just right the spot, how to place just the slightest hint of melody to break the drones into something cathartic. Sleepingdog are not Stars of the Lid, but this eliding intro has a purpose because Adam Wiltzie – one half of Stars of the Lid – is a big contributor to Sleepingdog’s new album, With Our Heads in the Clouds and Our Hearts in the Fields. This is a good thing; when Wiltzie’s lushly textured arrangements take center stage, With Our Heads is a rather good if not great album. But, again, this is not a Stars of the Lid album, but rather a Sleepingdog album, and thus these arrangements have to be paired with Chantal Acda’s vocals, and, more importantly, her songwriting.
It’s not that her voice is in anyway bad; it’s pretty and soothing and precious and technically rather solid. But it also lacks a certain force to it that makes the listener take notice of the album. It floats by unimaginatively in large parts of the album, particularly in the numbing “It Leaves Us Silent” and the airy “ooohs” of the following track “Polish Love Song.” The vocals just seem to be there, as a pretty little reminder that Acda is in the mix somewhere too. Otherwise the show is (unsurprisingly) stolen by Wiltzie’s fantastic arrangements. The humming, low-key instrumental “Kitten Plays the Harmony Rocket” has all the markings of a good Stars of the Lid track, as splashes of chords wash the drones in colourful hues of moods. His predominant contributions are fixed all over the two best pieces of the album: “Untitled Ballad of You and Me” and “He Loved to See the World Through His Camera.”
These tracks also feature the two best vocal performances from Acda. “Through His Camera” manages to pair a lovely singer-songwriter melody with a haunting atmosphere superbly – something the rest of the album falls so far short from. More powerful, even, is the album opener’s inclusion of a forceful organ part that compliments the layered, effects-laden vocals to make what is easily the most impressive moment on the album. These two songs in particular seem to paint the impressions of a better album; a showing of potential of what could’ve been. The rest of the album, right to the sleepy closer “Scary Movies,” mixes honest and simple lyrics, airy vocals and great ambient arrangements to very little effect. In the glutton of pretty records, With Our Heads in the Clouds and Our Hearts in the Fields presents itself as a merely a needle in the haystack; the likelihood is that it will be lost in the mix, not good enough to be remember, but also not bad enough to be singled-out.