In Brief: A subtler set of tunes to herald the coming of spring. Not SAL’s best work, but only because they’ve set such a high bar for themselves.
Geoff Benzing, the artist who’s been painting the beautiful images that grace the covers of Sleeping at Last‘s digital Yearbook releases, has brought to life interesting visions of land and sea from around the globe, subtly matching the themes of the three songs that the band has been releasing each month. March, the month which heralds the arrival of spring, is no different, but its cover image holds a special place in my heart, since it’s an artistic interpretation of a scene from my own home state. Historically, each spring in the seaside community of San Juan Capistrano, California would see the arrival of swallows along their migration path up the Pacific Coast, and they would nest in the rafters of the town’s mission. I was just there this weekend, and the swallows failed to appear, so perhaps it’s more of an inspiring legend than a scientifically predictable fact. Still, it’s a fitting image for a set of songs that gracefully ushers in the winds of change, its subdued but warm tones inviting listeners to cast off the gloom of winter.
Most months, I find myself positively gushing about Sleeping at Last’s latest trilogy of songs. All have had at least one track – if not all three – that has resonated with me immediately, while the others revealed their gentle grace in short order. This month, the band tends more toward the understated side of things than usual, opening with an instrumental track (their second after January‘s “The Ash Is in Our Clothes”) and closing with a plainspoken folk ballad (albeit one with a well-played special guest appearance), leaving the ambient/experimental stuff to bubble in more gradually in the comparatively more layered middle track. It’s the first time where I haven’t been sure which of the three compositions is the immediate standout – which isn’t a bad thing, because they’re all sweet in their own right, and the two with lyrics have beautifully written ones as always. I can find segments on SAL’s full-length albums where three merely good tracks show up in a row between the three great ones, so don’t think I’m knocking March as a sudden drop in quality for the band. It’s simply that within the half-year’s worth of material that Yearbook has brought us so far (which is a good album and a half’s worth of a normal band’s output), with the output being so uniformly late, something has to come in last place, and for this listener, March brings up the rear out of what I’ve heard thus far. I don’t know how anyone could keep up a perfect streak after the phenomenal January and February EPs. Who knows, maybe this one will go down easier for fans who thought those were a bit too much.
The opening instrumental track contemplates the quiet beauty of the ocean with the sort reverence reserved for setting foot inside a massive sanctuary. It’s structured a bit like “The Ash Is in Our Clothes”, in that it opens and closes with hushed piano before delving into its full, widescreen expression of beauty. But the overall mood is softer and a bit more fluid, the rolling piano speeding and slowing the tempo as needed while the gorgeous call of a violin (or perhaps one of its more exotic stringed cousins) rings out over the glistening white crests. While this fades into soft silence a bit sooner than I’d like, its cinematic scope gives me the faith to believe that SAL could score an entire film’s soundtrack this beautifully, if given the chance. (At the very least, they’ve promised us a sequel called “Atlantic” on a future EP.)
This curious track feels like a synthesis of some of the more interesting ideas from the last handful of EPs – it opens with a synthetic wash reminiscent of January‘s “Wires”, just a bit wispier. It gradually builds, on the steady roll of Jason Toth‘s drums, to a crescendo that reaches for the same heights that February‘s “Land or Sea” or December’‘s “Accidental Light” reached. In terms of pure density, it’s one of their busiest songs, with Ryan O’Neal‘s trembling guitar aspiring to the same level of Sigur Rós-esque fervor as some of SAL’s early material. Thematically, I’m captivated by its poetry themed around the desire to live life fully and to embrace the trial-and-error process that comes with that, but at the same time, there’s something in the language that feels like I’ve heard this song before. That may be a bi-product of writing so many songs within such a short period of time, but I’ll say this much: Even if it’s a thematic retread, it’s a lot more musically interesting than what a lot of other bands come up with when they harp on the same subject album after album (see Switchfoot for a sometimes frustrating example of this).
Oh hey, did I mention Switchfoot? That’s funny, because their lead singer Jon Foreman – the biggest name to guest on a Sleeping at Last track thus far – drops by to sing a duet with Ryan on this uncluttered folk song. (Alright, it’s not that funny, considering I dropped that reference quite purposefully.) Aside from the use of Ryan’s ukulele, this track has a sparse, simple sort of quality to it that’s actually quite reminiscent of Foreman’s solo material. It wasn’t a co-write, but it feels like it could have been, with its tale of a girl raised by wolves and a boy raised in the lap of luxury playing out as a subtle Biblical allegory (come on, I can’t be the only one who thinks of Jacob and Esau when prompted with that song title). Lyrically, it’s quite fascinating, but I’m slightly underwhelmed by the more plaintive musical approach – drums and piano come in at the chorus, but that chorus doesn’t quite have the same epic sweep as so many of Yearbook‘s better songs. It’s an intriguing thought, though: “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, they say/Our only birthright in this life is the breath that we take.”
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Ryan O’Neal: Vocals, guitars, ukulele, keyboards, etc.
Dan Perdue: Bass, guitars, keyboards, etc.
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.