Sleep and Dream
released by Sequoya in September, 2008, vaults to select company as
one of the best albums of the decade. It is great American folk
music, sometimes hard driving, sometimes soft, but always melodic,
thoughtful, and thought-provoking, with a haunting female lead
vocal. Sleep and Dream of Fire is a theme-based album, mostly
of space and its many metaphors. Sequoya is a singer/songwriting duo
from North Carolina, with Bonnie on lead vocals and guitar, and
Matthew on backing vocals and banjo. This is their third full-length album;
sixth overall if you count EP's; the
previous albums were limited releases.
The music grabs you first, and you can listen to
the music without paying attention to a single lyric, but those lyrics will
gently sink in, and draw you in, and when you’re in, you realize the lyrics
are quite fantastic, the subject matter unique, elevating this music to
amongst the best stuff being made today.
The album kicks off with Rocket, an
artfully crafted analogy of lover as rocket, who’s mind soars high into the
atmosphere, and “can’t wait to get back in the sky” where she can “climb way
back up above it all”, but when she gets too high, she inevitably falls to
earth, “a flaming ball of unnamed fear”, and then washed up by the tide up
on the shore – to the dismay of the scientists. And that is why, she sings,
she longs to be in her lover’s arms and at peace.
If you enjoy well-written, thought-provoking lyrics, the lyrics on this
album will make you smile – the subject mater, the metaphors, the language
stylings; all well done.
Playful Use of Language
follows; a whimsically happy tune of a very sad tale – I picture Nemo
traveling the ocean forever more, searching for his father but never finding
him. Except in space, not the ocean, for the space metaphor continues --
“When my father left for space I was not awake; and though I don’t know
where he went, still I fancy him.” Poignantly, you might imagine a young
child whose father left the home, and the child is left to think her father
went off to outer space somewhere. This song was available for listening on
Reverb Nation page. For the album, they have upped the tempo and added a
tin drum, making it almost a dance song – like what the British group DNA
did to remix Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner”, except that Sequoya have done it
to their own song. It’s a wonderful, danceable, naively happy song of
sadness. “In my dreams you are the sun behind the thickest clouds”, sings
the lead singer about her long-lost father. “Sometimes I’m my father and my
father says to me, someday you’ll understand but I don’t understand.”
There's a playful use of language throughout.
Weary is the
tale of a slave owner who wanted himself buried standing up on the grounds
above his plantation so he could oversee his slaves working for the rest of
time (it is explained in a podcast with
Sequoya by Subdivision67). This song was written by
Matthew, is driven home by
electric guitar with distortion, and is sung beautifully by
Bonnie as she weaves weariness into her voice, singing the final lines,
“what have the winters made of you.”
another favorite, is a hard-driving folk song with electric guitar and drums
and Bonnie’s haunting voice penetrating the still night air, “don’t let the
darkness scare you.” And then the scene flips (to the next morning?) and the
happy plucking of the banjo introduces you to the acoustic Satellite.
In general, the pacing of the
songs on this album from one to another is superb.
It’s hard for me to pick my favorite song of the
album; there are at least six or seven that vie for first place (with the
others right behind). Satellite is one of them. Bonnie sings in
first-person from the view of a satellite. “A mannequin you made me out of
gears, wire, and chrome; ozone has melted through me I wish I was just flesh
and bone.” Or is she making an analogy of herself as satellite around her
lover? “I know I’m a satellite in orbit around you; I wasn’t supposed to
break from the program you put through.” Or is she commenting on the human
condition and its relationship to the earth? “We are only tiny specs in a
glorified chain of events.” It is up to you to figure out, as you tap your
feet to the music, with the crisp banjo playing by Matthew dueling with the
vocals, and accentuating the music with an American folk touch.
is a slow-tempo, pretty, reflective folk song that has you thinking of
colored leaves on fall trees and the smell of burning wood in the air of the
Adirondack or Appalachian or Shenandoah
mountains, although the lyrics are nothing about
that. Again, beautiful banjo work by Matthew.
On In Exit, the distinctive melodic style
of lead singer Bonnie cross-sections a little bit into
the sonic ground of Natalie Merchant, like the
intersection of two overlapping circles, and for a few seconds, you
think you thought you were listening to Til’ Tuesday Unplugged (one of the
great live albums ever).
“Not all of us have definitions”, Bonnie taunts
on How Closely. And this turns me around in my chair; first, I have
always been one of those people who abhors the constant categorization of
music (and other things). Second, in the systems architecture modeling
field, a ‘definition’ is a term used for artifacts (systems, applications,
databases) that are represented by ‘symbols’ on ‘diagrams’. Definitions
carry information about a symbol; not every definition (for example, a
business rule) is represented by a symbol; likewise, not all symbols have
definitions. The separation of symbols and definitions has caused much stir
in that field recently, by those who debate that symbols should not exist
independently of definitions to enforce ‘model-based behavior’. Others
debate that a symbol should exist separately from a definition, because it
captures information about ‘instances’ of things which shouldn’t be captured
globally in the definition. It’s as if Sequoya are happily singing from the
viewpoint of a symbol in a design drawing tool. But I think they’re singing
about something else.
The Other End of the Cosmonaut Periscope
The album closes with two more of my favorite
songs – Cosmonaut’s Wife (which I’d heard on youtube a year
prior to the album’s release, and which originally turned me on to Sequoya),
and Barren the Sea, newly unveiled for this album. Cosmonaut’s
Wife is the other end of the periscope of David Bowie’s Space Oddity.
Bowie’s “Tell my wife I love her very much; she knows” is expounded by
Bonnie – “she knows he’s up there, so far away; and the light she sees is
from yesterday”. As beautiful musically and lyrically as this song is, for icing
on the cake make sure to watch the
handcrafted by Bonnie.
Barren the Sea: Russian Submarine Kursk
The song Barren the Sea is worth the
price of the album by itself; it’s about the sailors who died on the Russian
which sank in the Barents Sea in 2000, and weren't rescued in time due
to politics. The tempo rises with urgency “They could see their families
waiting on the shoreline, praying ‘my god we’re running out of time,’” and
then softens “bottom of the sea their breath like candles stop.” It will
effect you; leave you there thinking about the sadness of it all, and you’ll
put it on again. And again. Every song on this album is one that you’ll play
over and over and over again. Which makes it a classic, in the company of
top albums of the decade, such as Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space, Fiona
Apple’s Extraordinary Machine, and so forth. An all-time classic. Buy
it, and enjoy it.
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guitar, drums, percussion, keyboard, candle, and cello.
Matthew plays bass
and banjo, and keyboards on In Exit.
Alisha Perez plays
electric guitar on Rocket.
CD Design by
Rebekah Meek of Quick Brown Fox Design.
Cover and booklet
design by Bonnie.
All songs recorded
and mixed at home at Sequoya Studios by Bonnie.