In Brief: The sonic diversity is welcome after the slight letdown of April. But I still get this nagging sense that certain musical ideas keep repeating themselves.
Is Sleeping at Last starting to repeat itself? That’s the question that runs through my mind as I listen to May, the 8th EP in the band’s Yearbook series. The duo of Ryan O’Neal and Dan Perdue is now 2/3 of the way through the project, and it’s clearly been tireless work for them if the Facebook updates about looming deadlines, which seem to appear like clockwork toward the end of each month, are any indication. But it’s also been a labor of love, freeing them up to try on different musical hats and change direction on the fly as new inspiration strikes. Listen to the EPs thus far as one continuous project back-to-back, and you might hear a sea of vaguely pleasant ideas, which after a while become difficult to distinguish one another. But focus in on each set of three new songs, take a listen to the finer details, and the uniqueness of each song – well, most of the songs – begins to present itself. Frankly I’m not sure how any songwriter could continue at this pace without revisiting similar territory at some point.
May carries with it a sense of being familiar, yet different. The track titles are practically synonymous with titles from some of the earlier installments, though that doesn’t make the actual songs in any way related. The musical approach adds a few jazzy twists to the two vocal songs – which we’ve heard them attempt before on November‘s “Bright & Early”, but the end result is quite different. The lyrics touch on themes of risk-taking, identity, and transition that were explored on February, March, and April, respectively, and that in a broader sense, have served Sleeping at Last well throughout their career. There’s even an instrumental piece that could be seen as a sequel to one from January. (And shoot, the album art – beautiful as it is with the humpback whale and the tropical fish – bears thematic similarity to the narwhal that graced January‘s cover.) All told, I’m finding May to be a positive experience, one that changes up the mix a little bit after the sonic lull of April. But it brings with it this odd sense of déjà vu that makes me wonder what would happen if, even just for one month, these guys challenged themselves to say, “Hey, this thing that we usually end up doing when we write songs? Let’s intentionally avoid that and see what we come up with.”
1. Pacific Blues
The band’s clearly got the ocean on their minds, but this track is in no way thematically linked to the piano instrumental “Pacific” from the March EP. Instead, it has a whimsical feel, with old-timey horns leading the way, and a slow, fluid rhythm to match Ryan’s melancholy musings about real risk-taking versus the amusement park version. “Imagine how brave I’d be if I knew I was safe,” he quips. “If I could only know the end, I’d be a prodigy of faith.” Dan’s playing the upright bass on this one, it sounds like, and there’s enough quiet space for that instrument to be noticeably audible in the mix. A flute-like keyboard tone adds an air of fantasy to the chorus, which also pulls a subtle rhythm change from 3/4 to 4/4, making me think momentarily that there was a glitch in the mp3 file. All of these subtle elements give the song a sort of “underwater speakeasy” feeling. It’s all good until after the second refrain, when the song modestly fades away, as if they’d run out of time to record a proper ending. I’ve been noticing that a lot of SAL’s more recent songs seem to do that, which lends itself well to a dreamy atmosphere, I suppose, but I find myself longing for the days when songs like “Umbrellas” and “Trees” had more confident, definitive outros.
This one may as well be the younger brother of January‘s instrumental mini-epic, “The Ash Is in Our Clothes”. It’s got that same sort of galloping rhythmic feel to it, perhaps even denser with percussion this time around as both organic and programmed sounds compete for space against a sea of piano sounds (both natural and backmasked). The piano interlude in the middle sort of inverts the approach from “Ash”, which started and ended with quiet, dramatic piano chords. The name of the track is modest, because to me, it’s far from just a transitional piece in between to songs, actually turning out to be May‘s centerpiece. These guys are three for three on beautiful instrumental pieces thus far.
You knew Ryan couldn’t put the ukulele away for an entire EP, right? Like so many of Yearbook‘s ballads, this one waves graceful empathy around a skeletal structure, consisting of a loose acoustic melody and a few guest instruments – in this case, a harp and a clarinet, which once again puts the musical mood somewhere between after-hours jazz club and faraway fantasy forest. My first impression here was “Pretty, but not melodically distinct enough to grab hold of”, since I kept hearing little pieces of November‘s “Emphasis” and March‘s “Birthright” in my mind when I’d try to recall the tune. But then I paid closer attention to the lyrics, and, WHOA. This must be one of the songs Ryan was talking about when he mentioned writing a couple for solo shows he was playing to benefit To Write Love on Her Arms, because it demonstrates great compassion for its protagonist, an underappreciated child tempted to take his/her own life just to get the attention of neglectful, or perhaps abusive, parents. “You begged and begged for some kind of change/Maybe they’d wake up tomorrow and regret the pain/That they’ve passed down to you like DNA/But no luck.” It’s subtle, requiring a bit of interpretation to get at this character’s desperation, and it also plays the solution quite subtly, with Ryan simply longing for the person to know “The truth is that you’re loved”. I can’t think of a song on the subject that’s grabbed me this powerfully since Plumb‘s “Cut” a good five years ago. It almost makes me wish the music had a bit more edge to it – but I get that SAL is aiming for comfort, not so much trying to startle the rest of the world into understanding the risk of losing this person (though that isn’t a bad side effect).
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Pacific Blues $1
Ryan O’Neal: Vocals, guitars, ukulele, keyboards, etc.
Dan Perdue: Bass, guitars, keyboards, etc.
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.