Style: Soft-hearted pop; compare to Sixpence None the Richer, Sarah McLachlan, Matt Duncan
Top tracks: "Noble Aim," "Wires," "Wilderness"
On the EP July, part of Sleeping at Last's Yearbook—a series of 12 EPs, one released each month over the course of a year—singer/guitarist Ryan O'Neal sings, with feverish emotion, "God, it has been quite a year."
Simply looking at the history of the band, one could easily agree with him. Since starting this project, Sleeping at Last has been reduced to one permanent member, while it has also found its greatest successes: tracks from this project were picked up for use in TV shows, and the group recorded a song for the soundtrack to the latest film in the Twilight series.
But for all the positives that have come out of the band's gains, their music has suffered the most. Gone are the urgency and touches of rock bravado that marked 2003's Ghosts, Sleeping at Last's introduction to the world at large.
In its place is a love for weeping string arrangements and majestic piano chords, tempos that rarely rise above a gentle heartbeat, and heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics that pull from the personal tragedies and triumphs. O'Neal has seized the golden goose and he's not going to risk losing his grip.
Shame, too, because this was a gift-wrapped opportunity and idea for O'Neal to really stretch his prodigious talent in some interesting directions. And to his credit, he does move away from the warm glow of the fire here and there.
"Pacific Blues" (from the May EP) and "Bright And Early" (from November) take some arrangement tips from Sufjan Stevens, trying on different time signatures and sprinkling dashes of discordance amid the melodies. And he fits comfortably into a nice country lope on September's positively lovely "Noble Aim." The rest of the tracks, though, stick to a heartstring-tugging template that likely works in small three-song chunks, but presented in one lump sum becomes downright tiring.
O'Neal has never seemed willing to wear his faith as boldly as other songwriters, but he keeps things particularly vague here. You never know if the God he references as in the lyric of the first paragraph is the Lord or just some epithet.
Take a little time with the lyric sheet, though, and you'll find O'Neal's heart. "Our desperation leads to a fork in the road / We live for understanding or for control," as he sings on "Wires," right before encouraging his listeners to cut the titular strings to earthly things. And who could argue with him when he proclaims that "love is the noble aim"? It's just too bad that O'Neal didn't aim a little higher when taking on a project like this.
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