Jon Edwards and Anne-Marie Helder might be forgiven for resting on their well-earned laurels. Their talents have helped push Panic Room into a rock act to reckon with. Rejoice then, as their latest incarnation as Luna Rossa signals an intention to keep progressing, and the outcome is an absolute doozy of a record.
If you were afraid this acoustic offering would be nothing more than a diversion from Panic Room’s mighty chops, then rest assured it isn’t. Sleeping Pills & Lullabies is an album as clear, deep and refreshing as a pool of ice-cold spring water. Helder and Edwards have achieved that most difficult thing – music that is both pruned and honed yet remains nuanced and lush.
Sleeping Pills is an act of exposure that wrestles with the darkness of depression and old relationships and all that we’ve lost. This is no mere Panic Room sans bombast. Rather, this is Helder and Edwards exploring the possibilities of simplicity and lo-fi harmonics. Opener The Dark Room is a tour de force. It captures a mood and a tone – wintry, glacial yet strong – that pervades the entire album. Edwards’ careful lyrics, playing with the idea of ‘the dark room’ as a metaphor for depression, display rare intelligence. And if it makes use of the full acoustic arsenal – double bass, piano, strings et al – the unfussy arrangement gives scope to Helder’s lucid vocals.
Like most fine art, Sleeping Pills’ brilliance rests on a kind of gentleness and restraint. Heart On My Sleeve and jazz-flavoured Mad About You deepen the spell. The addition of Stephen Merritt’s kooky curiosity The Book Of Love is one hell of a call. Many will claim that Peter Gabriel made the definitive cover, but this stripped-back beauty runs it close.
There is loneliness in this music – Cloud is as spectral as Kate Bush in her snowiest mood – but the strength of guitar and piano workout Rise Up is astonishing. The instrumental Leaving For The Last Time relies on a fragile interplay between piano and flute and evokes the stillness of newly settled snow, whereas Fight Or Flight and Gasp soar and dive. At one point Helder sings, _‘We must expose our hearts’. _Well, Luna Rossa do that, and then some.
Like a fine painting, Sleeping Pills & Lullabies reveals new aspects of itself with each and every encounter. It’s a continent away from the fumblings of many currently fashionable acoustic artists. Judging by the material on this graceful album, Luna Rossa are beautifully poised between the explorations of Kate Bush and the powerful singer-songwriter tradition that stretches back to Joni Mitchell and the US West Coast of the early 70s. Listen and learn.