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Sounds like … a harder edged Coldplay or a lighter toned Radiohead, meshing rich strings with ambient alternative pop/rock in a way that also recalls Zwan, Jars of Clay, Sigur Ros, Mae, Cool Hand Luke, and KeaneAt a glance … though the production isn't quite as crisp as the last album and the overall sound is generally softened, Sleeping at Last again demonstrates strength in music and lyric with ethereal string-drenched arrangements about the hope of heavenTrack Listing Tension & Thrill Careful Hands Needle & Thread Envelopes Hold Still Heaven Breaks Levels of Light Quicksand Umbrellas Sing to Me Dreamlife Keep No Score
You'd think things would be more on the up and up for Sleeping at Last, the young trio from Chicago's suburbs discovered by Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins, Zwan). That relationship led to the 2003 release of Ghosts, their highly acclaimed national debut through Interscope Records, which charted on our own Best Albums list that same year. Considering their popularity on Fuse TV and their high-profile tour with Switchfoot in 2004, the band should have risen from obscurity to at least a small success by now.
Instead, one of today's best bands finds itself independent once again, remaining only an underground favorite, but that hasn't halted the release of their impressive follow-up, Keep No Score. These guys found their footing with Ghosts and seem to acknowledge that, maturing and evolving their artistry ever so slightly without making dramatic changes to their mesmerizing alternative pop/rock sound. Are they a more explosive Coldplay, a softer-toned Radiohead, or a more accessible (and intelligible) Sigur Ros? Probably all of the above, with elements that also recall the sonic density of Smashing Pumpkins (or Zwan, if you prefer), the ethereal folk of Jars of Clay, the soaring melodies of Keane, and the passionate emo-pop scope of Mae.
Sleeping at Last may come across as too rich for some tastes—the musical equivalent of drinking whole milk instead of skim. Strings are no stranger to the band's sound, but here they play an even more prominent role, supporting eight of the album's twelve tracks. It helps give Keep No Score a more organic and almost classical feel in comparison to Ghosts. Unfortunately, it also causes the album to fall in a bit of a musical rut (like Sigur Ros). In a sense, the strings replace the electric guitars for this album, thereby eliminating anything that rocks as strongly as their previous single "Say" in favor of continuously sweeping grandeur. Considering the sizeable role of the strings in these arrangements, it's hard to gauge how well the songs will translate to live shows without them.
The album also belies its independent production. Ghosts, produced by Smashing Pumpkins wizard Bjorn Thorsrud, boasted an amazingly crisp polish in its mix of guitars, strings, and effects. Sleeping at Last self-produced this time, and despite mixing by John Goodmanson (Death Cab for Cutie), the rock elements are considerably more muddy and muffled, robbing the music of some of its power. Look no further than opening track "Tension & Thrill" to notice it.
Nevertheless, what a beautifully rendered effort this is when it comes to dynamics, showing almost more strength in the soft than in the loud. The band reveals a folksier side with "Needle & Thread," starting with acoustic guitar and strings before building into a glorious finale, and you can almost imagine the late Johnny Cash performing "Heaven Breaks." The band also knows how to breathe life into their sound. Not content with simply recording a "guitar song" or "strings song," Sleeping at Last goes to great lengths in adding evolution to a song, allowing emotions to ebb and flow with the music and lyrics.
Which brings up the songwriting, where the band has grown the most. With the exception of "Umbrellas," which celebrates new marriage, Keep No Score is almost entirely preoccupied with the hope of heaven in answer to a hurting world. That focus could become repetitive in less capable hands, but lead singer/guitarist Ryan O'Neal works hard to carefully word things in a fresh way, like in the gorgeous "Careful Hands"—"When our color dies we will bury the ashes of time, and we will earn new eyes." This album is more outspoken with faith than Ghosts, but still keeps things subtle enough like U2 to inspire dialogue among those with ears to hear. Among the many comforting illustrations, none are more so than "Dreamlife," in which O'Neal points to a peace readily available to all: "There's a voice inside your soul that resonates through your skin and bone/Up through the blades of grass/Underneath the feet of God's only Son/The war that you're fighting has already been won."
Coupled with bright and imaginative artwork, Keep No Score is a maudlin effort, but optimistically so, poetically looking forward with anticipation to the dream of kingdom come. Despite a slight step backward in production and variety, the band makes a greater leap forward in writing and composition. Never mind that Sleeping at Last is currently independent. Others will continue to invest in their majestic musical sensibilities.