In Brief: Probably the most “band-oriented” of the Yearbook releases thus far, which is surprising now that SAL is essentially a solo act.
Wow. I honestly did not see this one coming. Most of Sleeping at Last‘s Yearbook project thus far has been an exercise in hushed, quaint beauty, sometimes filling up with layers of instruments on the more rhythmic, baroque pop-oriented songs, but largely falling back on Ryan O’Neal‘s love of deliberately sparse ballads, the kind that can seem like a blur of subtle, indistinguishable beauty at first but that really brings the poetry of his lyrics to light when examined more closely. After Dan Perdue‘s departure made June the last EP on which he collaborated as a full-time band member, I fully expected July to head firmly into the spare, introspective solo singer-songwriter territory. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
July‘s three songs can easily be broken down as a microcosm of Sleeping at Last’s career prior to Yearbook – namely, their three full-length albums. It feels like each song is more or less a revisiting of the sound from each album – and that’s not at all a bad thing, as the group sounded excellent from the very beginning and there is a part of me that misses the electric grandeur of Ghosts, even while applauding the maturity and inventiveness shown in SAL’s more acoustic material. Most amusingly, July is defiantly up-tempo throughout, with only the mere pregnant pauses in the two rock-oriented songs or the scaled-back, organic rhythm of the third as hints at the group’s softer side. In a weird, inverted way, this is SAL’s version of restraint, because the quiet ballads seem to be the mode in which Ryan O’Neal operates most naturally, so the upbeat stuff seems to stretch his creative muscles a bit more. For much the same reason than January was such a delightful surprise, July turns out to be one of my favorite chapters in the overall story. At 10 EPs and 30 songs into the process, most bands would have long since run out of good ideas. So it’s to Ryan’s credit that he has not only soldiered on, but actually managed to thrive, in this new era of Sleeping at Last as a solo project.
The sound of Ghosts, their lone major label album and the only work of theirs I could easily label “rock” without needing a ton of qualifiers, feels like it’s being revisited in July‘s first track, with members of one of my favorite (now defunct) bands chipping in to give it that “full band” feel. Mark Padgett and Jacob Marshall, the bassist and drummer from Mae, comprise a rhythm section that adds to the overall grandeur of the song, easily making it as much of a soaring standout as early fan favorites like “Say” or “Currents”. Acoustic guitar still plays an important lead role even while the electric chords provide rhythmic structure, and the song pulls of a delicate balance between energetic chord strumming and delicate fingerpicking. It’s an impassioned plea to a “wilderness” that seems to be personified as a temperamental lover – Ryan asks this volatile landscape to be kind to a woman trying to find her way, to go against his nature and hold back his fiercest storms to ensure her well-being.
2. Hit or Miss
Keep No Score‘s delicate balance between electric indie rock and the more piano-driven softness of SAL’s later work isn’t too dissimilar from the second track on this EP. That might be the sound of a toy piano that leads it off, but I’m not quite sure – either way, the juxtaposition with a “real” piano is lovely, while a banjo plunks and drums pound along in the background. While easily as up-tempo as “Wilderness”, this one builds up more gradually, which is appropriate for a song about what seems to be one of Ryan’s all-time favorite themes: waiting and patience. As the chorus proclaims “So let’s hurry, let’s hurry up and wait”, I’m reminded of similar sentiments about the folly of rushing into things on Ghosts‘ appropriately titled “Hurry”. Where that song was much more laid-back, this one seems more anthemic, almost at war between its calm moments and its frustrated burst of a chorus. Some of the lyrics do better than others at describing the struggle with impatience: “A watched kettle never boils, a watched tree never grows”, is a good twist on an old cliche, but that leads to the rather odd declaration “May we have our tea in the forest, may we reap all that we sow.” That oddity gives the song a charming quirkiness, though, and as far as songs about being stuck in between places, I’ll take this one over April‘s middling attempts at exploring the subject any day.
July is rounded out by a jaunty ukulele-driven number that fondly recalls some of my favorite moments on Storyboards (particularly “Porcelain”). This, of course, is the instrumental setup that is most native to Yearbook as well – Ryan’s uke plus some strings, piano, and very light percussion. The bouncy, hopeful mood is fitting for a song that seeks to make the most of memory, noting that we humans have a funny tendency to only look back and see either the greatest hits or the most tragic losses, sort of filtering out all of the mundane stuff that falls in between. Despite a chorus which sadly proclaims “God, it has been quite a year/I’ve lived a little bit and I’ve died a little more”, it seems as though Ryan’s looking forward to reminiscing about it, knowing that perspective will give his current experiences more of a sense of order and meaning. I’ll admit that the title of this song is amusing in and of itself – it makes me wonder whether Ryan is a fan of the Portal games, or perhaps just a big photography nerd. (The ever-present photographer on each month’s cover art would seem to support the latter theory.) The final verse is one of SAL’s most poignant, offering up the following prayer: “Give me the heart of an archaeologist/That I may dig until I prove that I exist/A subterranean cathedral in my midst/Where echoes come to rest.” The looped backing vocals as that last line repeats itself are a beautiful touch, reminding me that Ryan knows how to use the studio to great effect without drowning his songs in excessive bells and whistles. The focus is kept where it belongs, on the lush instrumentation.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Hit or Miss $1.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.