Cordelia's Dad

How Can I Sleep?

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The second album by Northampton, MA folkies Cordelia's Dad is the definitive document of their electric early sound, and possibly the finest American folk-rock album of the '90s. The trio's roots in the Western Massachusetts hardcore scene (which also spawned the very different Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh) give the album a passionately electric sound that perfectly suits lead singer Tim Eriksen's powerful voice -- Eriksen has one of the best voices in '90s music, no matter what the genre -- while maintaining the integrity of the traditional folk melodies. Producer Dave Schramm (Yo La Tengo, the Schramms) strikes just the right balance between noise and clarity, as well as acoustic grace and electric noise. The songs are one of the strongest sets the group has compiled, including the relatively familiar murder ballad "Delia" (which Johnny Cash did in a similarly electric version later in the decade as "Delia's Gone") and "Farewell to Old Bedford," as well as more obscure choices like the peculiar "Swiss Nanny." The album's standout is "Narragansett Bay," which Eriksen, bassist Tom King, and drummer Peter Irvine turn into a surprisingly poppy sing-along (complete with killer hooks and a Richard Thompson-style guitar solo), considering it's about a child's death by drowning. Other highlights include the haunting "Sweet William" and "Harvest Home," two songs that prefigure the more acoustic sound of later Cordelia's Dad albums. As always, Eriksen seems to have chosen the most inexplicable lyrical variations of the songs, favoring evocative but discordant imagery over linear narrative. The resulting mystery is only one of the elements that makes How Can I Sleep? an endlessly fascinating piece of work.

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