In Brief: A noticeable drop in quality from the rest of the Yearbook series, but still thought-provoking in spite of its setbacks.
Sleeping at Last has now gotten over the hump in their Yearbook project. It started in October of 2010, with the goal of writing and releasing three new songs a month until September caps it off late this summer, and it’s all been happening on schedule for seven straight months now, with the vast majority of the songs released thus far ranking among the band’s best work, some of them expanding their palette in surprising ways. When I first signed up for the $30 subscription last fall, I figured there’d be more than enough good material to choose from even if not every song was a winner. And I was surprised when, up through about February, I found myself getting more excited about each new EP than I had been about the previous one. March was a bit of a cool-down for me – the songwriting still high-quality and the music still moving, though not on as epic of a scale as I’d been accustomed to. Still, it came as a bit of a surprise when April rolled around, and I couldn’t seem to shake off my lack of excitement after first hearing the new songs. This one might be the band’s first dud.
Sleeping at Last hasn’t done anything terribly inadvisable, or even slightly out of character here. So it’s not like they suddenly jumped the shark and went off in a direction that I just can’t get on board with. The problem might be the opposite, in fact – I’ve gotten used to the stirring layers of dreamy instrumentation that make this group’s more grandiose songs fly, and also the quiet stillness that wrap a simple melody around many of their quieter songs, forcing focus on Ryan O’Neal‘s immaculate songwriting. But here, the approach feels stubbornly mechanical on two tracks, and nearly immaterial on the third. The right components are there – strings, piano, and ukulele complementing or even surpassing the role of the traditional drums, bass, guitar lineup. However, the group’s baroque pop approach feels stifled by an insistence on straight ahead, plodding rhythms, right up until they decide to ditch rhythm altogether. Lyrically, the band is preoccupied with the notion of being stuck somewhere in between where they are and where they want to be, tugging at the same tension that’s fueled some of their better songs about people on Earth trying to hold onto their fleeting glimpses of Heaven. Unfortunately, this preoccupation becomes a bit of a metaphor for the songwriting process itself, or at least my reaction to it. It’s like a case of writing about writer’s block – it seems like a neat enough novelty at first, but the idea quickly wears thin. My letdown concerning the two songs that do this forces all attention on a more romantic song which opens the EP, sort of making it the highlight by default. I keep listening to the others, hoping my opinion will change – but it, too, seems to be stuck.
While February largely focused on love songs, this one strikes me as being more personal about Ryan’s marriage, focusing on details of their wedding (“We were married by the ocean/We were tethered by the sea/We tied string around our fingers/To remember our ideals”), and using them as metaphors for the bond experienced between the two as the rest of their lives unfold. It’s a cute song about two people becoming inextricably tied together (Ryan describes it as “cat’s cradle etiquette”) and promising to be each other’s constants during times of uncertainty. The music is built from the repetitive plucking of single notes on a stringed instrument – either Ryan’s ukulele or perhaps a cello – and the piano gradually amplifies these notes into full chords, while a drum softly keeps time with the established rhythm. It’s a good, driving rhythm as far as Sleeping at Last songs go (they’re generally light on the percussion these days), but it feels like the group isn’t able to rise above its mechanical insistence when the chorus calls for something more grand, perhaps some sort of a break from the routine. It may be intentional that the song is more grounded in reality, I guess. It’s still my pick for April‘s best track, but as I said above, it’s the favorite by default.
I can’t recall the last time I felt this irritated by one of Sleeping at Last’s songs. They’ve had a few that seemed to drag on and on – generally deep album tracks like “Birdcage Religion” or the aptly titled “Slowly, Now”, but I could still get on board with the sense of longing and beauty expressed by those songs. Just about all this one’s got going for it is a meek, three-note electric riff, translating up and down the scale as the chords change, drums keeping time in the most unimaginative way possible by emphasizing each half note and not a whole heck of a lot more. Listening more deeply reveals the layers – another guitar interlaced beneath the lead one, and gentle keyboards giving it more of a “fantasy” sort of feel. But Ryan’s melody, much as he may try to mold it loosely around the established rhythm, similarly fails to take off. It leaves the song feeling like it never climaxed and thus never had anything to resolve – just a steady sense of vague “in-between-ness” maintained throughout. Given the lyrics, which are basically a list of good and bad things he feels caught in the middle between, I know this approach has to be intentional. But it comes across as more of a thematic exercise than a fully realized song.
3. In the Meantime
It’s honestly a relief that the dull percussion doesn’t play a noticeable role in this final track – the rhythm is entirely provided by a sustained arpeggio on the acoustic guitar, which gives it a romantic, sweeping mood, even though it creates the illusion of the song being unanchored. The mood here is tentative, trying to address fears of the future and our silly attempts to control the thing we can’t. Some profound thoughts come out of this – I’m particularly attached to the phrases “Here in the meantime, may questioning nurture life” and “Fear is illogical math, an impractical skill to have”. And the string section does its expected duty, dropping a sizeable dose of sweetness into the swelling chorus. But I feel like it all dies down just as it’s getting to “the good part”. As that unchanging arpeggio fades out in the most unassuming matter, I feel less like I’ve experienced something lovely, and more like I’ve just passed by it on a train, with no option to get off and explore the tantalizing scenery briefly glimpsed before disappearing into a tunnel.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
In the Meantime $1
Ryan O’Neal: Vocals, guitars, ukulele, keyboards, etc.
Dan Perdue: Bass, guitars, keyboards, etc.
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.