In Brief: Another home run. Sleeping at Last could write and record beautiful songs in their, um, sleep.
February is a short and sweet month. Well, at least it’s sweet for those who have someone they’re looking forward to spending a special romantic evening with when that holiday – you know the one – comes rolling around in the middle of the month. Many other folks get rather forlorn at this time, if not downright jaded. Some duck and cover and avoid the whole thing altogether. If you fit into the latter category, then listening to February, the fifth installment in Sleeping at Last‘s Yearbook project, might have been a tough go for you during the month of its release.
It’s been obvious from the get-go that frontman Ryan O’Neal is a romantic at heart. Though one can look at the band’s discography and count the actual love songs on one hand (“Umbrellas”, “Next to Me”, maybe “Tension & Thrill”… am I missing any?), the more spiritual-leaning poetry that comprises the bulk of their work has an obvious sense of wide-eyed wonder to it. Even when he’s singing of pain and brokenness, one gets the sense that he’s deeply in love with life itself. So it’s interesting to see what happens when he turns his focus to the subject of two lovers, each lost without the other, battling the ravages of time and society to keep their love strong. February is largely about that, wearing its lovey-dovey attitude loud and proud on two of the three songs, while the other is more oblique, more of an ode to overcoming fear and taking chances. As always with this group’s more recent output (well, almost always – January was a bit of a departure), the music is mostly acoustic, delicately performed, begging you to stop and fawn over the beauty it hopes to express. Two of the songs approach this more quietly, in line with some of SAL’s best-loved ballads, while the other is quite possibly an intentional attempt at stacking layers on layers just for the grand spectacle of it. All are thoroughly enjoyable and worth your time – even if they will be a tough sell for the cynics.
1. Dear True Love
It’s amazing how a few simple acoustic guitar chords can mean so much when they’re plucked by deft fingers and given modest embellishment from a mandolin and some very subtle background instrumentation. The triplet notes make this little love song feel like an intimate slow dance, listing simple but effective analogies to describe the aspects of a man’s life that would feel woefully incomplete without “my one true love”. It’s the gentle caress of the song that makes it work so beautifully, that helps basic metaphors like “I’m a memory bent out of shape, a childhood already bruised with age” to really take flight. I can be a pretty cynical guy sometimes, but I can’t help it, this one just melts me.
2. Land or Sea
This would be the big, go-for-broke, wall-of-sound production. In keeping with the triple meter of the previous song, it starts out with the beautifully understated circling of its main ukulele riff, but numerous layers – some organic and some studio enhanced, are piled on to lead to its grand, uplifting chorus, which boldly proclaims “We’ve got no stakes in the ground, we’ve got no anchors tied down”. That it eventually builds to a grand, ringing bridge with jubilant keyboards and sprightly acoustic instruments capturing the feeling of an adventurous day spent out at sea is entirely appropriate for a lyric that romanticizes an experience of having no guarantees but also no limits. It’s a poetic way of telling us there’s nothing to fear but fear itself. Throughout its four minutes, all the way until it gradually fades to the soft drum beat that provides its rhythmic backbone, it feels like the kind of music that makes you just want to go out and conquer your own unique little corner of the world.
3. Learning Curve
The electric guitar has been gradually pushed out of the spotlights ever since Ghosts, the band’s one and only “mainstream” record that relied heavily on the instrument. When you hear it nowadays, it’s far from a guarantee that it’ll be a rock song. Fittingly, this song uses it sparsely, using it to gently pick out a melodic cadence in 6/8 time in a song that marries the forlorn romance of its first track with the excited risk-taking of its second. It’s one of Ryan’s most impressive lyrics, describing a dream he had in which he and his lover throw all forms of security to the wind, eking out an imperfect but joyous existence, fearing no possible combination of changes or setbacks. “When darkness was the price of light, we weren’t afraid/For the time we’ve spent was more than worth any interest we’ve paid”, he assures her in the chorus. It’s a good mantra for a young, independent musician to have, and the song represents a lesson in flexibility that probably wouldn’t be bad for a guy like me with a stable job and lofty ideals about future plans to learn. The clincher is this little take-away that caps off the song (and yes, I am spoiling the ending for you): “And when my good dream came to an end/I woke up more than ready to bend.”
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Dear True Love $2
Land or Sea $2
Learning Curve $1.50
Ryan O’Neal: Vocals, guitars, ukulele, keyboards, etc.
Dan Perdue: Bass, guitars, keyboards, etc.
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.