In Brief: Surprising and thrilling. Perhaps the best of the Yearbook EPs thus far.
Rushing online to download some mp3s is not the first thing most folks would do upon returning home from a New Year’s Eve party. For a lot of folks, the first thing on the list would probably be “Pass out in a drunken stupor”. Or if you’re like the unfortunate suckers who descend on my hometown of Pasadena, California every year, you’ll spend those hours freezing your butt off on the parade route and wondering if watching the darn thing on TV wasn’t such a bad idea. For me, though, the highlight of those wee hours of New Year’s Day, 2011 (aside from making fun of whatever vapid pop stars were working the after-midnight shift on the obligatory Times Square party that always seems to be on in the background even though nobody really seems to care) was the release of January, the fourth EP in Sleeping at Last‘s Yearbook series. The band had wowed me enough with their sensitive, poetic, and somewhat experimental take on baroque indie pop with the first three EPs that I just couldn’t wait to hear more.
January turns out to be some of the group’s most fascinating music thus far. I would say that it’s the first EP in the series without a single song that reminds me of typical Sleeping at Last. That’s not to say that they’ve left behind their sensitive piano-based musings, their folksy acoustic fare, or their penchant for arrangements that make the listener swoon. But it’s a remarkably sweeping, upbeat trilogy of songs that seems to allow no possible room for the listener’s attention to wander. A lot of Sleeping at Last’s music has to “sink in”, at least for this listener, but January seems to thrive in its immediacy. Doing this without trading depth for a superficially catchy sound isn’t easy, but to put things in perspective, this is still pretty darn for from mainstream pop music (and even farther from mainstream rock). SAL’s experimental streak caught them on some of their best days here, giving us a glimpse of the group at their most toe-tappingly optimistic, at their most cinematic, and even at their geekiest. It rings out with the glory of a new year, as if to say no previously known limitations need be imposed, and we can write whatever we want on the blank slate before us. That’s the kind of music that tends to get me the most excited.
1. January White
This is the “toe-tappingly optimistic” entry. Or, perhaps more accurately, the “guitar case slapping and hand clappingly optimistic” entry, because that’s what it sounds the rhythm track is made up of. In stark contrast to SAL’s usual “slow build” methodology, the ukuelele and acoustic guitar are gleefully strumming all the eighth notes all the way through, the piano is sunny and cheery, and if you didn’t have any lyrics or a song title to work with, you’d probably assume this was a song for spring or summer. In this song, the flipside of December‘s “Snow”, Ryan O’Neal has chosen to honor the notion of a new year as a fresh start, choosing “So let’s press undo, rearrange the old and call it new” as his opening words, and even acknowledging the fact that the calendar is a social construct, just a convenient division of time that may not really mean anything to the cosmos, but that gives us a convenient reason to try again. His words are sung with the excitement of a child opening a gift, and while the tone of it may be too “Pollyanna” for some listeners, I like it precisely because I needed that kick in the pants at the beginning of a new year that I honestly wasn’t expecting much from. “The future is brighter than any flashback”, he urges us. As a guy who can sometimes get too attached to nostalgia, I take these words as a challenge.
2. The Ash Is in Our Clothes
The Yearbook project gets its first instrumental in the form of this bounding, dramatic piece which brings the piano front and center. it begins slow and solemn, but soon leaps to life, the trilled notes and cinematic strings giving me a mental picture of a woman with long, flowing hair riding a horse through a forest in medieval times. The percussion, keys, strings, and flute are gorgeously arranged – it’s one of SAL’s busiest pieces, and you can tell that they didn’t just use an instrumental as a shortcut because they were running out of time to write lyrics. Words would honestly just get in the way here. (Though it’s notable that November‘s “Bright & Early” contained the line “I still smell the ashes buried in my clothes”, while also referencing December‘s “From the Ground Up”. Yay for intertextuality!)
Readers of SAL’s blog probably have a good idea about how much Ryan O’Neal and Dan Perdue like to geek out over their gadgets. It’s pretty common among musicians nowadays, actually – especially the indie ones who like to do it all themselves. These boys are particularly in love with their iPhones, and when they’re not procrastinating by playing various game apps to blow of the stress of lyrics that just won’t let themselves be finished, they will record song ideas and bits of melodies into the iPhone for later use. This track is the logical extension of that process, using a music composer app to build an entire song from scratch, with no “live” instrumentation other than Ryan’s voice and Dan’s bass. SAL has hinted at electronic influences in the past, but very subtly, so this might come as a surprise to those who love the band for their lush acoustic side. But if you’ve seen them in concert, then you know they’re used to programming their gadgets just so to fill in some of the strings and other production elements that can be tough for a small band to reproduce live. So in a sense, it’s not that strange of a leap. But it’s a fun one, still employing the band’s penchant for making large gestures from minimal elements, as a series of warm electronic notes rings out, and then another strand comes in and before you know it, several melody lines are filling in each other’s gaps, all tangled up and all the lovelier for it. The song is about a single moment in time in which a risk is taken, which Ryan likens to cutting a wire and hoping it’s the one that defuses the bomb rather than setting it off. The song just sort of whizzes by me, not having as obvious of a chorus as other songs (it may be because a basic melody repeats so that Ryan’s voice itself can become part of the repeating loop), and coming to this sudden crescendo and a jarring stop as if drawing a breath deep before that climactic moment when you find out if your choice was right and whether you will get to live or die.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
January White $2
The Ash Is in Our Clothes $2
Ryan O’Neal: Vocals, guitars, ukulele, keyboards, etc.
Dan Perdue: Bass, guitars, keyboards, etc.
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.