Sleeping At Last
New Release: Atlas: Light (also, Atlas: Darkness)
Release Date: June 10, 2013 (January 29, 2013)
Record Label: self-released
Sounds Like: Her Space Holiday (NMT); Hey Rosetta! (NMT)
Location: Wheaton, Ill.
To follow up last week's review of a Stephin Merritt project with a similarly prolific and adventurous artist seems altogether appropriate. While Merritt's material can range from range from brooding and antagonistic to electronic experimentation, the volumes of work supplied by Sleeping At Last's Ryan O'Neal trends more towards uplifting and organic, if a tad too ethereal at times. Like Merritt, O'Neal culls his output into less conventional formats, including short EPs and multi-volume collections. Light and Darkness are part of O'Neal's Atlas series of six-track EPs, which will ultimately include a total of six records released every few months, and are "inspired by the origins, emergence and experiences of life," according to O'Neal. The series the natural successor to his Yearbook collection from 2010 and 2011, which yielded a new three-song EP tailored for each month of the year.
Although O'Neil tends to organize his releases in a fashion similar to Merritt, his musical style is more akin to Her Space Holiday's Marc Bianchi, with intricate orchestral arrangements spanning a wealth of genres from folk to progressive rock. Meanwhile, his vocal phrasing is more reminiscent of Hey Rosetta's Tim Baker or Mike Viola of The Candy Butchers: a high, sweeping tenor range that often begins gentle and a touch fragile at first, but can build and swirl when called upon in service to epics and anthems.
This review will include not only the most recent volume of the Atlas series, Light, but its debut offering from January, Darkness, which O'Neal intended to be considered as two sides of a vinyl record. This intention is borne out by the contrast between "Uneven Odds" off Darkness and the title track off Light, which tells the story of the same character, the former from the viewpoint of a guardian of a child whose parents had recently passed, and the latter reflecting the thoughts of that same child – now as an adult – on the birth of a child of their own, the lyrics to which could be an eye-watering credo for any new parent as the instrumentation swells with resolve and hope:
"May these words be the first to find your ears:
All is bright and in the sun now that you're here;
Though your eyes will need some time to adjust
to the overwhelming light surrounding us;
I'll give you everything I have, I'll teach you everything I know,
I promise I'll do better...
I will always hold you close but I will learn to let you go,
I promise I'll do better...
I will soften every edge, I'll hold the world to its best,
and I'll do better...
With every heartbeat I have left I will defend your every breath
and I'll do better...
Cause you are loved, you are loved, more than you know,
I hereby pledge all of my days to prove its so,
though your heart is far too young to realize the unimaginable light you hold inside..."
There's little impression O'Neal is just simply aiming for a tearjerker here. I feel the same about the equally sentimental but just as sincere "We're So Far Away" by Mae. I dare you not to be convicted.
Come for: "Light" (see above)
Stay for: "You Are Enough" (light and intricate)
You'll be surprised by: "Heirloom" (surprisingly folksy, with acoustic guitars and fiddles; continues the motivational tale from father to son begin in "Light"
Solid efforts: "The Projectionist" (I think the first line, "When I was young, I fell in love with stories" is enough to make the whole track worthwhile); "Overture" (gentle at first, but picks up in intensity, mostly via a simple mandolin part); "I'll Keep You Safe" (very lush, illustrative lyricism); "Uneven Odds" (tune in for the set-up of "Light," despite its morose subject matter)
Meh: "In the Embers" (slow and somber); "Woodwork" (this is what I meant by a touch too ethereal, and its just a little repetitive); "Bad Blood" (nothing wrong per se, but I guess a collection entitled Darkness will have more slow, restrained numbers than not)
Skip to next track: nothing too objectionable
The Lighthouse & The Whaler
New Release: This Is an Adventure
Release Date: September 18, 2012
Record Label: self-released
Sounds Like: Ra Ra Riot (NMT), Hey Marseilles (NMT), Vampire Weekend
Location: Cleveland, Ohio
Don't worry, everybody – I've found it! Found what, you ask. Well, only the record that Ra Ra Riot should have released as its fourth album instead of the electronic schlock of Beta Love. Strangely enough, it turns out it comes via the Seattle indie folk-rock quartet The Lighthouse & The Whaler's sophomore release, This Is an Adventure, which came out last September but which I was only recently made aware of. There's the same faux-Sting vocals from frontman Michael LoPresti that made Ra Ra Riot's Wes Miles stand out, and the same mix of Vampire Weekend-style Afropop and synth-rock and strings-forward, baroque-pop that defines groups like Hey Marseilles and Rah Rah (NMT).
Come for: "Pioneers" (good blend of their previous folk-oriented catalog with their new, more rubbery sound; catchy hook)
Stay for: "Chromatic" (although its nearly a knock-off of Ra Ra Riot's "Too Dramatic," that was a great tune these should have no shame in trying to rip-off; combination of glockenspiel, strings and keys add even greater buoyancy to slinky guitars and bouncy bass)
You'll be surprised by: "This Is an Adventure" (could be a breakout hit for the band)
Solid efforts: "Venice" (not too heavy; compliment to leisure travel); "The Adriatic" (strings take center stage here; intriguing chorus); "Burst Apart" (if you've listened to any of the group's previous material, you'd never suspect they'd turn out something as loose and floaty as this); "Iron Doors" (kind of heavy as the title suggests, but not a bad choice to slow things down by a step on an otherwise pretty peppy production); "We've Got the Most" (once again, could double as a Ra Ra Riot number; I still have no problem with it); "Untitled" (love guitarist Mark Poro's figures here)
Meh: "Little Vessels" (never seems to catch the current it needs to get going properly, but otherwise its okay)
Skip to next track: it's all aiight
New Release: Desire Lines
Release Date: June 11, 2013
Record Label: 4AD
Sounds Like: 10,000 Maniacs, A.C. Newman (NMT), She & Him, Of Monsters & Men (NMT)
Location: Glasgow, Scotland
Just a few seconds of interaction with "Do It Again" – the leadoff single from the Scottish sextet's fifth full-length release – should tell you all you need to know about the group's power and potential. Unfortunately, much of that talent is well, obscured here with mid-paced numbers that are pleasant enough, but don't churn along with the same sort of urgency and vigor as demonstrated on just a few tracks here, or elsewhere through their past portfolio. I know I harp on my 3-2-1 ratio over and over, but this record is truly the case study in why uptempo numbers need to be the bulk of any collection, followed by lesser numbers of mid-paced and slower selections. This is really a shame since I've routinely cited Camera Obscura as possessing much of the template for what I consider to be the ingredients for good music: many performers of both genders – often Canadian or Scottish – playing all sorts of instruments with the ability to span multiple genres and possessing the knack for catchy tunes. I just wish we'd heard more of it on Desire Lines.
Come for: "Do It Again" (nearly as good and hooky as their all-time best, 2006's "Let's Get Out of This Country;" lead vocalist Tracyanne Campbell demonstrates why she's one of the best in the business when she's on her game)
Stay for: "Break it to You Gently" (good energy and sturdy drumming from Lee Thompson)
You'll be surprised by: "This Is Love (Feels Alright)" (the slow-paced stuff starts early, but this one's early enough that it's still interesting; some good strings and horns matched with multi-instrumentalist Carey Lander's organ balances out the bluesy rhythm section of Thompson and bassist Gavin Dunbar)
Solid efforts: "Troublemaker" (its just a small step off from being very catchy; sort of an 80s college rock vibe); "New Year's Resolution" (another good latent melody, but could use a jolt of power behind it; otherwise too hazy); "Every Weekday" (fun, tropical-flavored riff from guitarist Kenny McKeeve along with Lander's hovering organ salvages this one); "I Missed Your Party" (lighthearted; horns are a welcome addition; more nimble guitar work from McKeeve)
Meh: "William's Heart" (a lulling waltz that comes close to yawn-invoking; once more, McKeeve is able to add some worthwhile contributions); "Fifth in Line To The Throne" (again, I don't mind Thompson and Dunbar's blues foundation – and if this were the 1 in my 3-2-1 ratio, it could fit as a You'll Be Surprised By pick – but, alas, it's just another slow song here); "Desire Lines" (as a traditional closing track it's no problem, but good luck finding the appetite for more slow stuff if you make it this far)
Skip to next track: "Intro" (only 30 seconds, and this isn't really a concept record, so what's the need of a prelude?); "Cri Du Coeur" (might find its higher purpose as a sedative)
New Release: The Distance Is So Big
Release Date: June 18, 2013
Record Label: Bridge 9 Records
Sounds Like: The Tins (NMT), Rah Rah (NMT), Slater-Kinney
Location: Buffalo, N.Y.
If you heard Buffalo, N.Y.'s The Tins when we profiled them last year, the quirky, time signature-defying work of their fellow Nickel City-based trio should serve as a good follow-up. Guitarist Sheena Ozzella and drummer Alex Kerns share lead vocals, while the pair along with bassist Max Gregor churn through a variety of progressive and slightly odd takes on the traditional rock format, much like Primus did to a larger scale through the 1990s, albeit here with less spiffy studio production, which at times is a little distracting. (Listen to the full record via NPR's First Listen)
Come for: "Brilliant Dancer" (good bouncy hook; Ozzella's vocals are flighty like if Taylor Swift found her way to prog-rock; note the first example of shifting time signatures around the 1:55 mark)
Stay for: "Clay Baby" (Kerns is a few notches shy of Ozzellla's vocal talents – he can occasionally sound like a low-register John Linnell – but the melody vaguely reflects Modern English's "I Melt With You," which is fun)
You'll be surprised by: "Scienceless" (thick and meaty riffs)
Solid efforts: "Dream Eater" (hard-charging, neat rolling bass line from Gregor; hooky chorus); "Chihuly" (titled for the famous glass artists, the trade-offs and interplay between Ozzella and Kerns brings a good deal of fun as we hear about an "amateur astronomer" and the "butterscotch shattering Chihuly"); "Bluffing Statistics" (I'm not wild about the disjointed percussion here, but the song concept is interesting nonetheless); "Public Opinion Bath" ("one minute you're stuck between two proud parents and a studio audience" from Kerns might be the most interesting lyric on the baker's dozen tracks; satisfyingly short at 2:12); "Congratulations Sex" (not quite Rilo Kiley's "Potions for Foxes," but still pretty humorously lurid); "Ruby" (packs plenty of punch for a closing number; Ozzella's vocals sound like a slight nod to The Cranberries' Delores O'Riordan)
Meh: "Paint the Youth" (the rhythm seems a bit clunky and out of synch; do like the trippy organ, though); "Oahu, Hawaii" (another hint of a famous melody, this time via Queen's "Radio Ga Ga," but the rest of the track is a bit sparse); "Survivors' Guilt" (a little too slow and dark for their sound profile)
Skip to next track: "Michael and Stephan Moon" (much like Camera Obscura's "Intro," it serves little purpose)