Friday, October 20, 2017

SOFTSPOT - Clearing (2017)

One of my favorite qualities of Brooklyn art pop outfit SOFTSPOT is how they experiment with their sound. While the band arrived with a full realized and unique sound on debut full length record Ensō, instead of resting comfortably on that particular sound they've expanded: going from two members to their current four, adding in the incredible insistent drumming of Bambara's Blaze Bateh and the svelte synths of Jonathan Campolo of Pill, each album since their debut has been a veritable redshift - a musical "yes and..." statement that rather than negating what's occurred before simply seeks to build upon it.

The result of another of the North Carolina retreats where singer/songwriter/bassist Sarah Kinlaw and guitarist Bryan Keller Jr emerged with much of Ensō and MASS, SOFTSPOT emerged from the chrysalis of both touring and the retreat once again with a newer sound - one that positions them at their most accessible. Clearing, the band's third full length album, is rooting firmly in the pop element. Much of what makes SOFTSPOT truly special can be still evidenced on this record: its diverse aural tapestries, unexpected lyrical subjects and narrative choices, and Kinlaw's vocal elasticity.

On Clearing, SOFTSPOT makes the most of the official addition of Campolo and constructs songs of seemingly limitless lushness. Whether it's the intense, of album opener "Maritime Law" or , SOFTSPOT build entire worlds with astonishing swiftness. The songs pull you in instantly with either their expansive, full instrumentation or their confessional-like intimacy. At times dream-like and incredibly visceral at others (often times within the same song), SOFTSPOT illustrates the theme of connection through both a lucid clarity and dreamy, subconscious intuition.

On "Helen" and "Habits", Kinlaw explores the dangerous and pitfalls of pursuing connections that no longer exist as the subjects of these songs surrender to lives to reminiscing and reliving golden memories with lovers that are no longer there. Though both are expressions of grief much like Ensō's "Half a House", Kinlaw explores them in drastically different ways, "Helen" from an outside perspective as she tries to convince the titular Helen to leave her room and rejoin normal life and "Habits" from the perspective of someone wrapped up in their loss who gives up more and more of time to trying to imagine life with the departed.

In addition to Kinlaw slipping into different characters and shifting various perspectives, Clearing seeks Keller also contributing vocals/lyrics and his contributions "Touch and Go" and "Whale Song" approach them from an male perspective of what is expected and what can actually be offered and how that ultimately ties into the quest for an engaging connection.

While much of Clearing is perhaps a reaction to a lack of a proper connection or a response to what happens when a powerful connection is severed, occasionally on the record there are moments which illustrates the surge of electrifying possibility that happens when a positive relationship is received: enter "Abalone" and to a lesser extent "Heat Seeker", arguably the most pop heavily cuts on the record. "There is a pull between the endless love that comes from me", Kinlaw sings as "Abalone" begins and it's a pretty intense feeling both to describe and to feel as Kinlaw describes how the what is irrelevant when the how is what is absolutely brimming with love. "It isn't in the way you move, it's the way you simply stood and took my hand" Kinlaw sings in probably one of the song's most climactic moments and it perfectly encapsulates the intensity of feeling that's she's looking to convey.

Clearing also sees a culmination of an often used reference to water. While Ensō paired many of its various reference with either an incendiary delivery or actual mentions to fire, Clearing is rooted firmly in its aquatic element: the push and pull of the waves seeming directing the very flow of the album as Kinlaw from the albums very beginning weaves a through line of water as a force greater than almost every force but love. It's the most prevalent of nature exerting a direct influence in the lives of the album's multitude of characters but where water was a cleansing agent on Ensō, its role on Clearing is both as an actual threat to contend with like the stormy, menacing "Maritime Law" or as a fathomless mirror of the album's subjects own capacity to feel and to love. 

SOFTSPOT are a band with a fiercely distinct sound but one of their greatest strengths lies in how malleable they allow themselves to be. No one SOFTSPOT album sounds the same as the one that proceeded it but there is still an unmistakable oneness to them all. Clearing reveals more facets to SOFTSPOT as Keller takes up both songwriting and vocal duties, the band properly incorporates its former touring members, and the band pursues a bolder sound through reveling in their vulnerabilities. Clearing is a remarkably open album. It is open and sincere and full of very real reactions and responses even as it presents them in occasionally more palatable dressings than they might've been presented on a previous album. But SOFTSPOT have always operated on a point between experimental musicianship and an inescapable pull of either frenetic guitar riffs or ear-catching pop melodies and tied them together with innovative songwriting. Clearing is no different and though it pushes their sound forward towards the end of the pop spectrum than previous releases there's, they band haven't dialed back the other qualities. Clearing is a powerful document from a band utterly comfortable in their own skin, it's not afraid to try dressing a little differently. 

SoftSpot's third full length album Clearing is out now on Arrowhawk Records.

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