In Brief: A great start to an ambitious year-long project. And it gets even better from here.
Late last year, one of my favorite bands embarked on an ambitious project that could have easily worn out most recording artists. Barely a year and change past Storyboards, the group’s first album as a duo (and one that saw them decidedly leaving alternative rock in the rear view mirror in favor of a more lush, acoustic, baroque pop sort of approach), Sleeping at Last announced the Yearbook project, a year-long series consisting of a three-song EP per month, released directly to fans via the Internet for either $3 individually or $30 for a subscription to the entire project (thus saving the optimistic fans six bucks). As much as I loved the band, I was a bit skeptical about this. It takes most bands a good two years, if not more, to refill their quiver with good songs after releasing an album. And now they were planning not just to release the standard ten or twelve tracks, but a whopping thirty-six, within a year’s time, and most if not all of that material was going to be written from scratch and recorded independently rather that stockpiled ahead of time? No way. There was just no way it was going to work. Other personal favorites of mine have attempted year-long projects and had their schedules stymied by unforeseen circumstances – Future of Forestry‘s Travel series and Mae‘s final three EPs were projects that got finished way later than expected, with their last installments arguably suffering in quality as a result. I didn’t know how SAL was going to pull it off with only two people masterminding the whole thing. But thus far, they’ve been doing a bang-up job, with 6 EPs under their belt as of this writing that not only stand up well to their full-length albums, but may actually be of higher quality when taken song-for-song. Yep, these guys are that good.
The recording process started in September 2010, with the three songs that would comprise the EP October. This first glimpse of the project didn’t fully impress me at first – stylistically, it seemed like an extension of the Storyboards style, leaning towards hushed, literate ballads that featured either the piano or the ukulele as their primary instrument. Most of SAL’s material has to sink in slowly before I fully appreciate it, though I almost always have a favorable reaction to it right away, and two of these three songs fit that mold while the other was an immediate standout to me. But when the material seems par for SAL’s course, Ryan O’Neal nearly always impresses me with his carefully considered phrasings, and the universal sense of longing that seems to transcend the limits of his boyish, quivering voice, while Dan Perdue, officially the group’s bassist and sometimes keyboardist, wears a ton of hats as different instruments are brought into the fray and unusual songwriting or production techniques are attempted. Later installments of Yearbook would find the duo experimenting more and more, but October stands strong as its flagship release. (Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so – while I’m no fan of Grey’s Anatomy, I have to give their music director respect for including not one, but two of October‘s songs, in its soundtrack. SAL was similarly honored in the past when the show used Keep No Score‘s “Quicksand” in an episode, but it still says a lot to me when the Hollywood production machine is willing to hunt down your music despite the lack of any record label support, any mass-marketable gimmicks to speak of, or even any physical product.)
This song was the Genesis of the entire project – just a stray piano melody in Ryan’s mind and a lyrical snippet that begged to be expanded into a completed thought: “You spend your whole life just to remember the sound/When the world was brighter, before we learned to dim it own.” While SAL typically opens their full-length albums with one of their most upbeat numbers, this one is played sparsely and carefully, with the gentle strum of a ukulele and the aforementioned piano barely tying together the loosest sections, while a pseudo-choir of stacked backing vocals gives it remarkable fullness at its most climactic moments. It’s an unusual starting point from a lyrical perspective as well, urging the release of feelings as a way of regaining one’s innocence and vitality. Tears are welcomed as part of the process of moving on. Even in sadness, SAL’s optimistic streak can’t help but shine through.
2. Next to Me
The uke gets a chance to do something a little more upbeat and poppy here, with its happy, jangly strum shoved right up to the forefront of a gorgeous love song that fully embraces the childlike innocence which had been mourned in the previous song. Having a loved one nearby makes all the pieces fall into place for Ryan – life only makes sense when she’s around. He traces who they are now back to warm childhood memories from both of their lives, and you can just see the young boy and girl beaming from ear to ear at all of their quaint childhood accomplishments. Even despite the lack of drums, it’s a remarkably catchy song, with glistening piano and a glorious harp refrain (they had to work in a harp at some point, being such big fans of Joanna Newsom and all), and just to sweeten the deal, Eisley‘s Stacy Dupree shows up on harmony vocals. I’m enjoying the wide-eyed romantic vibe on this one so much that it seems almost cruel for the song to trail off to an unexpected end at the last verse. While musically unexpected, it makes perfect sense lyrically to end with this thought: “So let’s cut down the red tape, and gather up the pieces of our youth/’Cause there’s nothing in this world we can’t fix with some scissors and glue.” This is probably my favorite track on any of the Yearbook EPs thus far.
The idea of a destiny being written into your life from long ago is expanded upon in this tranquil piano ballad – the title is probably seeding my mind with ideas here, but I always picture gentle ripples on an otherwise calm pond when I listen to this one. It knows exactly when to let the piano and Ryan’s voice cry out into the still silence, and when to let the emotions swell up with an understated but lovely string section. The mellower SAL songs often take a while to grow on me, as they tend to have these segments where the momentum seems to trail off a bit, but this one seems to flow perfectly from quiet to full-bodied and brimming with emotion, and back again with effortless ease. While not explicitly “spiritual” in the usual sense that one would use to describe music made by Christians, there’s a Psalm-like quality to the words as Ryan sings of a life formed out of the earth, designed with a purpose to be discovered and a story to be told. It’s a subtle, but transcendent thought that closes October with gentle grace.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Next to Me $2
Ryan O’Neal: Vocals, guitars, ukulele, keyboards, etc.
Dan Perdue: Bass, guitars, keyboards, etc.
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.