SLEEPING AT LAST
Forget the five-star rating for a moment. Every now and then something comes along that restores your faith in humankind. This is one of those projects. Before you listen to this music, go to YouTube and spend 20 minutes watching the video that explains what inspired it. Take a box of Kleenex, as you will witness things magical, soul stirring, and heart breaking. The first notes you hear will sound like a gentle rain. They come from "Atlantic," the opening track of The Spring and the track snippets are interspersed throughout. Watch and then read my review.
Feeling better? Sad? Inspired? You'd better be feeling something, friend, or you've lost your humanity. Let's talk about the "band" and then the music from The Spring. First, Sleeping at Last isn't really a band per se. It started as a three-piece post-punk band in Wheaton, Illinois back in 1999, but these days it's the handle for solo projects launched by Ryan O'Neal (no–not the actor). Some of you may have heard their music in the background of episodes of Grey's Anatomy. When the original trio broke up, O'Neal moved more deeply toward a style of music sometimes labeled "emo." That's short for emotional and it is used to describe a very expressive and lush music–"emotional hardcore" according to some definitions. In other words, it's aimed at getting you in touch with your feelings, not your feet. Some would call it "New Age," but even a casual listen to The Spring reveals that Sleeping at Last doesn't quite fit that bill–New Age is often more overtly spiritual, tends to rely more on electronic sounds, is meditative in quality, and is rooted more in jazz; emo is a subgenre of alt.rock, prefers live (not remixed) instrumentation, has stronger melody lines, and is less interested in making you feel relaxed. There's no denying the lullaby-like qualities of Sleeping at Last, but there's also (if I might) an emotionally unsettling quality about many of the tunes.
I adore O'Neal's projects and I'd listen to him play music about cleaning out the fridge, but The Spring ought to be nominated for an Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian prize. He enlisted cellist Sharon Gerber (Celloasis) to add sonorous bottom to his piano, and Ms. Gerber brought along her daughter, Anya, an accomplished violinist who is all of twelve! If you've watched the video, you know that The Spring is part of a campaign to bring clean water to the 666 million global citizens who lack it. You also know about charity:water, the foundation started by former music promoter Scott Harrison, and were probably pretty moved by his biography, until he topped it by telling you about MercyShips, upped the ante by showing you what it means to lack clean water, and knocked you off your pins by telling you about nine-year-old Rachel Beckwith.
Because The Spring is about water, O'Neal's keyboard playing has a liquid quality. They drip on "Atlantic," rush and gush on "Clean Water," and build slowly on the soundtrack–as if they are percolating from deep underground and burst to the surface as Gerber's cello swells and surges. The goal of each track is to be both beautiful and set a mood; many are short so that we can keep our thoughts focused on the project rather than the musicians. Let's do both! "Enabling Environment" is just one-minute long. It's bright and upbeat, but it's also loaded with a double meaning: Nature provides, especially when humans assist. There are two tracks that evoke Rachel Beckwith, the 40-second ambient "Rachel," with its angelic vocalizations in the background, and "In Her Honor," which is both emotive and energetic–like a nine-year-old with a big heart. This is simply a gorgeous album from start to finish and it's fine if sometimes you play it just to zone out and maybe even nod off for a few moments. But let's remember that it closes out with "Transformations," which is somber, quiet, and reflective. It is the sound of sadness leavened with hope and melancholy bathed in beauty.