An alt-folk exploration from Justin Bernasconi – with virtuoso guitar as an added bonus
Release Date: 24th September 2021
Label: Mountain King Music
Formats: CD, Download
Justin Bernasconi is a new name to me, and I’m at a loss to understand why. He’s been around for quite some time, initially as the frontman of The Stillsons, the Melbourne alt-country outfit, and more latterly as a solo artist with a growing reputation as an acoustic guitarist able to take the disparate styles of, amongst others, Richard Thompson, Martin Simpson and Roy Harper and channel them into something that is uniquely his own. Sleeping Like A Maniac is his third solo album and follows the acclaimed Winter Pick (2014) and Barefoot Wonderland (2017).
Although based in Melbourne, Justin was born in the UK and it was to the UK he turned for the inspirations that feed Sleeping Like A Maniac. He’s taken a detour from the Americana roots that were so prevalent on his previous two albums and has, instead, followed the lead of the strain of alt-folk so familiar to followers of the likes of Noah and the Whale, The Travelling Band and even America’s Fleet Foxes. And the result is something quite unique and quite excellent; Justin is a master of his craft, and his virtuoso guitar playing lends itself perfectly to the material on show. The focus is on the guitar and the intriguing, sometimes enigmatic lyrics, with producer Jeff Lang wisely choosing a light-touch approach to the rest of the instrumentation. Cat Canteri’s drums are light, often brushed and shuffling, the bass, played by ex-Stillson Ben Franz is spare, simple and straight to the point and further embellishments such as Anita Hillman’s cello and Jason Bunn’s viola are applied sparsely, carefully and always exactly in the right place.
The album’s subject matter has been inspired, to a large degree, by Justin and Cat’s experiences when they visited the UK and Europe to promote the Barefoot Wonderland album. First came the Brexit referendum result that Justin as an outsider, a Brit, but, first and foremost, a proud European had dreaded and then, as the tour progressed, the appearance of cracks in the couple’s relationship that led them to seek therapy. Hints and references to these experiences (particularly the relationship struggles) permeate the album and make for an intimate, often intense listening experience.
The story has a happy ending, by the way, as Justin and Cat’s daughter was born, just as the album was completed!
Sleeping Like A Maniac is a thoroughly rewarding listen. There’s lots of structural experimentation going on, the sound is soft, the production sparse and there are tunes that explore the outer limits of psych-folk, jazz and raga. There are also several excursions into the more conventional, familiar territories of baroque, blues and ragtime – and that awesome guitar is the thread that ties the whole thing together.
Opening track Blank Page sets the scene right from the outset. Justin’s rapid fingerpicking grabs the listener’s attention, whilst the drumming – played by Justin Olsson on this track – gets increasingly manic as the song progresses. The delightful, Indian-flavoured Lady In The Field sets the bar even higher. The song’s lyrics are the first reference to the relationship difficulties that inspire much of the album’s theme and Justin emphasizes the story with some excellent raga-style guitar, as the piece builds subtly and pleasantly.
Sleeping Like a Maniac, the album’s title track is a dreamy, abstract, instrumental that allows Justin to stretch out on his 7-string Martin guitar, whilst Flags Staked Upon A Hill takes us deep into the world of 60s psych-folk. The Richard Thompson influence comes over clearly in the light, bright, dreamy Dancing Elephant; Justin plays more wonderful stuff on his Martin 7-string, whilst the song itself is almost Beatle-like.
Sleeping Like A Maniac provides listeners with several opportunities to add their own interpretations to the music and lyrics. For example, the pleasant, evocative L’Angelino, a beautifully played guitar waltz, prompted me to wonder whether the tune’s title was a reference to the Jean-Francois Millet painting of the same name – I concluded that it could very well be… Similarly, Golden Leaves, a baroque, folky number with enigmatic lyrics, mentioning misery and decay, had me wondering whether Justin was referring to his disappointment over the Brexit issue. I’d like to think so…
As the album progresses, more conventional examples of Justin’s music start to appear. Bygone Blues is a traditional rag with lyrics that, once again, confront Justin’s recent emotional traumas, and the observational Man on the Street is the type of song that you’d expect to hear in one of the more progressive folk clubs, albeit not with the dexterous accompaniment that Justin provides here.
The magnificent I’m Still Here, is perhaps the most starkly autobiographical song on the album. It’s a self-critical, heartfelt appeal to his long-term partner and, with lyrics like “Made love with tears, hide pain, deny, pushed all hope aside.” It’s just about as intense and engaging as it’s possible to get. Right height continues with the intensity but, this time, seems to offer a glimpse of light at the end of the emotional tunnel. The song is delivered by Justin, alone with his Harmony Sovereign guitar, an arrangement that adds to the intensity of lyrics like “You’re the right height, when I pull you close, smell your long black hair as it tumbles down.”
After all that intensity and intimacy, the bluesy, humour-packed Trigger Me comes as a welcome piece of light relief to end a hugely enjoyable album. Sleeping Like A Maniac is an album that takes you everywhere; listeners are alternately challenged, enthralled, uplifted, entertained, upset, comforted. and ultimately, amused by the sheer breadth of the goods on offer. This is an album that isn’t to be missed!
Watch the official video to Blank Page, the album’s opening track, here: