In Brief: A little more reserved than November, but appropriately so given the reflective tone that the holiday season often brings.
The ending of a year is always a bittersweet time for me. This can be a time of immense anticipation as the hope of a new year approaches, or it can be a time of regret as goals set at the beginning of the year remain unrealized. The holiday season can help fill that strangely hurried void for some people, but for others, it can add complications and amplify the feeling of time slipping away too quickly. It’s a time of the year when a little reflection is needed, if for no other reason than to put on the brakes and refuse to let a year pass without giving its triumphs some recognition. A little music – particularly the type that carries with it a feeling of hushed, reverent splendor – can often do the trick to keep me from simply hiding in my cave during the chilly onset of winter.
The two members of Sleeping at Last hopefully finished out their year with a feeling of accomplishment and optimism for what lay ahead. Their Yearbook project, a fun idea in theory but an idea that would keep them busy writing and recording songs for a full year in practice, was now three months in, each three-song EP released on schedule and proving to be some of their best work. The December EP, in particular, sought to capture a special feeling of wonder, even including a specially-written Christmas song for the first time in the band’s history. As a whole, though, December is not dedicated to Christmas. The cover art, a beautiful painting by Geoff Benzing that depicts fireflies descending over a calm river somewhere deep in a tropical forest, could potentially be mistaken for an image of falling snow from a distance. That probably wasn’t a coincidence. But it’s a reminder, as November‘s cover was, that the seasons mean different things in different parts of the world. Endings here are beginnings and midpoints elsewhere. SAL has always been a band that has excelled at mining optimism from difficult circumstances, and on December, they establish an especially awestruck mood, some of their quietest work on two of the three tracks, while the other is as grandiose as anything they’ve ever recorded. It was at this point in the Yearbook project that I realized how consistently brilliant the band was turning out to be despite deadlines, and that I knew for certain what my first joyous musical discovery of the year 2011 would end up being.
1. Accidental Light
The lead track is a thing of stately brilliance, the piano and drums marching out in an orderly fashion before an electric keyboard comes in to give it a little extra glow, all of it leading up to a dazzling chorus with cymbals crashing like exploding fireworks in the air. This was a tough song for Ryan O’Neal to finish – a lyric that sort of turned in on itself as it gradually became about the difficulty of controlling his songwriting muse. The premise seems to be that sometimes the best discoveries in life are the ones we stumble across without looking for them, and yet sometimes describing what we’ve found is like trying to sketch a physical representation of an intangible idea. “Accidental” has a double meaning here, referring to both the act of not doing something intentionally, and the piano chords that Ryan happened across when playing something else incorrectly – an accidental in the true musical sense. The background vocals are noticeable here – Ryan’s fragile voice normally hangs out there by his lonesome, but here he’s got David Hodges (otherwise known as the Pete Best of Evanescence) to back him up, and while it’s understated, it’s a beautiful fit.
2. From the Ground Up
You’d be forgiven for mistaking the repeating melodic figure from Ryan’s ukulele that drives this quite song for a similar line from “Unmade”, a track on Storyboards. For my money, this song improves on the quiet formula set out by “Unmade”, thanks to Jeremy Larson, a singer/songwriter who toured with the band last year, and who provides a lovely string arrangement while Dan Perdue‘s piano fills in the blanks with an equal measure of grace. It’s a remarkably short tune, actually, but it evokes a misty-eyed, fantasy-world sort of feel as Ryan sings an ode to the process of being mended and starting life anew after everything has fallen apart. The line “It took me 27 years to wrap my head around this, to brush the ashes off of everything I love” is interesting in light of November‘s “101010”, which found Ryan closing his eyes and counting to 28 and 29. This makes me wonder if these songs represent some sort of a learning process that he was going through during each of these years of his life. (I have no clue how old he is now, though he can’t be farther along than maybe his early 30’s.)
Closing out the EP, and the year 2010, is this hushed song, which spaces out its piano chords as if each was a valuable coin to be spent wisely, while Ryan sings of a bare winter landscape that seems cold on its surface, but that represents the familiar warmth of loved ones coming together for holidays, and also the promise of a new start. Any spiritual references to Christmas are subtle, since this song is really more about the cultural significance of the season – the compassion that humans stop to remember to feel for one another that they seem to forget the rest of the year, and the practice of resolving to be better people as the calendar flips back over to January. Musically, it’s probably the song that interests me the least out of any in the Yearbook series thus far, but the lyrics are packed with nothing less than the usual excellence that Ryan brings to the table, wowing us right from the beginning with “The branches have traded their leaves for white sleeves/All warm-blooded creatures make ghosts as they breathe”, and finishing with these hopeful lines: “Like fresh plates and clean slates, our future is white/New year’s resolutions will reset tonight.” As with so many of Yearbook‘s songs, that last line is left to hang out in the reverent silence instead of closing with any sort of fanfare. It’s strangely appropriate, and it leads us seamlessly into what will follow on the January EP. (The month-long wait between the two EPs notwithstanding.)
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Accidental Light $2
From the Ground Up $1.50
Ryan O’Neal: Vocals, guitars, ukulele, keyboards, etc.
Dan Perdue: Bass, guitars, keyboards, etc.
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.