In Brief: Three more beautifully executed songs from SAL, if you can get over the seeming musical disjointedness between them.
The second installment in Sleeping at Last‘s Yearbook series (which, for those who missed my last review, is a collection of 12 EPs containing 3 songs apiece, all written and recorded on the fly in the month preceding their release) contains a few subtle surprises for listeners like me who assumed the group was going to settle into a simple, quiet groove after the mostly mellow, autumnal tone of October. The beautiful artwork – provided by Geoff Benzing as it is every month (and as it was on the band’s last full-length disc Storyboards) doesn’t depict leaves falling from trees, but rather, a group of zebras on the African savannah. It’s more of an exotic image, not one usually associated with autumn in the minds of listeners from the northwestern quadrant of the globe. But it’s a hint at the band veering in a wilder direction and experimenting with bolder colors. They haven’t morphed back into a rock band by any stretch, but there’s a little electronic influence there, a little jazz, most of it subtle enough to bleed organically into the duo’s well-established baroque pop sound. What they’ve got in these three songs is a collection of distinct sounds, all of them supporting lyrics based around the central theme of questioning our assumptions about the painful process of change, loss, even death. While it’s best heard in conjunction with the EPs that came before and after it, November‘s songs all stand up as unique gems on their own, worth the meager asking price of $3 for any curious listener.
1. Bright & Early
I was thinking of this track when I said “a little jazz”. That’s probably not a terribly accurate description, but I can sort of hear it in the tense, experimental way that the melody climbs, in Ryan O’Neal‘s tinkling piano, in the deep bumping of Dan Perdue‘s bass, and in the stately march of the drums (played by the band’s current touring drummer Aaron Mortenson). There are other elements that give it more of a fantasy-leaning, Beatles sort of feel, particularly the fanciful keyboard effects and whimsical backing vocals. It’s got more whimsy to it than your average SAL song, and that’s intentional, the music trying to offer a sunny perspective on the morning after a devastating loss has occurred. Ryan’s lyrics echo his earlier song “Porcelain”, describing things breaking and fires consuming a place one calls home. He offers a glimmer of hope, but no neat solutions, as the song wraps up abruptly right where you’d expect the chorus to come crashing back in, on the wisdom of these two hushed lines: “From the ground up, I’ll keep building houses into homes/If trust is ribbon, then patience ties it in a perfect bow.” (Listen to the lyrics carefully after you’ve gone deeper into the Yearbook project, and you’ll note some interesting call-forwards to songs not yet written at this point.)
Ryan gets rather Ecclesiastical on this second track, his voice a trembling whisper over stark piano as he asks some of his hardest questions about death by making analogies to bees whose stingers kill them to protect the colony, and grains of sand that fall too quickly through the hourglass. It’s a subtle song, played on the piano in 6/8 time and bringing back strong memories of similarly quiet numbers like “Quicksand” and “Birdcage Religion” that dealt with troubling questions on past projects. Here, the simple swelling of strings helps to elevate the mood as the chorus arrives, not making it a “happy” song per se, but showing some contentedness despite the lack of assurance about when and where death looms as Ryan proclaims: “The smartest thing I’ve ever learned is that I don’t have to have the answers/Just a little light to call my own.”
I have no idea where the title for this one came from, though the nerdy mathematician inside me sees what he assumes to be a binary number, and does the work inside his head to convert it: Two the first power is simply two, plus two cubed which is eight, plus two to the fifth which is thirty-two, for a total of… forty-two. Douglas Adams reference, perhaps? It would fit with the “meaning of life” theme explored within these songs. There’s little that’s computerized about this composition, however, aside from a bit of backmasked piano that only becomes apparently when the lush acoustic backdrop in front of it finally falls away at the end. For the few minutes leading up to that, it’s one of SAL’s most unabashedly beautiful folk songs, bringing together a light, finger-picked acoustic guitar with a mandolin and ukulele, creating a peaceful but colorful mood, the kind of thing that brings to mind an image of falling leaves in all matter of bold colors. The lyrics are some of SAL’s more challenging ones to untangle, giving the bizarre instruction “Close your eyes and count to 28” at the beginning of the song (and later 29 – I have no idea of the significance of those numbers, even in light of the revelation about 42), and acknowledging a slow change that is altering the landscape of what we thought was certain in life. It’s the erasing of what we thought we knew, which can feel like an uncomfortably grey area. Ryan turns around the usual Christian perception of grey as a bad thing with this intriguing chorus: “Grey is not a compromise, it is the bridge between two sides/I would even argue that it is the color that most represents God’s eyes.” You can chew on that analogy for a while, because I’m still not sure I understand it. But I know that I’m fascinated by the unexpectedness of it.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Bright & Early $1.50
Ryan O’Neal: Vocals, guitars, ukulele, keyboards, etc.
Dan Perdue: Bass, guitars, keyboards, etc.
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.