As a reader of music criticism, I usually distrust blatant comparisons in record reviews, which often seem only to obscure any accurate description of the music itself. As a writer of music criticism, I try to avoid loaded juxtapositions at all costs. In the case of Seattle indie band The Soft Hills -- whose latest album The Bird Is Coming Down To Earth was released by German label Tapete Records on February 14 here in the United States -- I'm indulging in the problematic practice of comparison, as if exorcising a demon, in hopes of illuminating the distinctive triumphs of The Bird.
On the surface, The Soft Hills is a group both blessed and cursed by the artistic milieu it occupies, and irrevocably so. The similarities to fellow Seattle folkies Fleet Foxes, for example, are unmistakable: the clarity of the melodies, the florid harmonies, and the warm instrumental tones are inextricable aesthetic ties linking these Northwest ensembles in style and mythos. Rather than obscuring the band, however, the commonalities serve instead to draw the subtle differences of The Soft Hills to the surface.
Undoubtedly, the band's vocals are its most prominent feature. Lead singer Garrett Hobba's tone carries like a perpetual entreaty to some secret and intimate place. Indeed, Hobba proffers an invitation in the album opener "Phoenix": "You can ride with us anytime you want/We can journey to the end of the night/We can look for treasures of our own delight."
Like with Fleet Foxes' singer Robin Pecknold there is an inspired simplicity, a lightness that allows the melody in each song to take over. In Pecknold's voice, though, one hears age but not the world-weary experience that typically accompanies it as a rite of passage -- a contradiction that seems eerily disingenuous beside Hobba's paradoxically young but wise voice.
The harmonies themselves are idiosyncratic without being unfamiliar. And unlike the chorus of voices that surround Pecknold in Fleet Foxes, Hobba's backers are essential to the musical dialect. As in the music of Brian Wilson, the harmonic language of The Soft Hills is firmly rooted in the vocals. With the Foxes, the backing vocals serve ultimately as ornamentation, because the harmonies that drive their songs are contained in the instruments. In contrast, if you were to remove the backing voices in The Bird, you erase the songs.
What truly sets The Bird Is Coming Down To Earth apart is its architecture, the sense of space that permeates the sonic environment. As in the song "Purple Moon," the album is at its most poignant when it eschews the use of guitars in driving the harmonic progressions, instead relying on the vocal harmonies to fill the caverns carved by the steady, mid-tempo locomotion of drummer Randall Skrasek and the reverberant washes of multi-instrumentalists Brett Massa and Brittan Drake. Elsewhere, crystalline vocal duets make the balladic "Days When We Were Young and Free" and "It Won't Be Long" absolute stunners. What results is the alluring soundtrack to a desert road trip taken at midnight.