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Return of the Soft Rock Renegades

Brazzaville, Do Say Make Think and Arbouretum are poised to slip you all their individual sonic mickeys.

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by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: February, 2007
None of these songs are going to thud you over the head and drag you back to their cave, they will just sully you with perfumes and cocktails until you go willingly.
by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: February, 2007
None of these songs are going to thud you over the head and drag you back to their cave, they will just sully you with perfumes and cocktails until you go willingly.

OK, since metal is on the rise, poised to usurp all that lay frail and limp in its path, it only makes sense that the cosmic balance be righted with a resurgence in well-heeled soft rock. I mean, America reformed, what more unlikely omen do you need? It's only a matter of time before Bread is the new has-been-influence being thrown around.

The thing about soft rock is, it's much harder than it seems. Most bands that go this route fall into the bottomless pit of the Beatlesque - where tepid semi-coherent songwriting is hyper-extended with lush studio effects. If you go back to the actual Beatles, not that I'm recommending that you do, but their arrangements were relatively Spartan, with just the right about of flourish to make the seedling bloom. Most Beatlesque acts lean more to the Sgt Peppers side, mistaking that corny post-vaudeville monstrosity as the Beatles' finest hour. It's terrible unmemorable stuff. I prefer the renegades that carve out their own niche in the sandstone.

East L.A. Breeze
(South China Sea)

This sweet little record slipped in under my radar, and were last.fm not such a memory hog, I could prove my liking of it with hard stats. The band bio puts singer/guitarist David Brown in "self-imposed exile in Barcelona" and his breathy baritone croon, 25% lothario, 75% sensitive type, supports this kind of character. The songs each emerge at midnight from their own oases. "Jesse James" sounds like the best bossa nova keyboard preset ever, underlying his narrative about killing his abusive father under tropical swagger and extended metaphors. Remember Prefab Sprout? That was a great soft rock band, and Brazzaville has a lot in common - slightly jazzy, slightly sad but weirdly confident and compelling.

"Ugly Babylon" tiptoes in on vibes, "Londres" slinks in like a head-bowed teenager, and "Takism" bolts in a bold piano, but each song remains welcome with their breezy spacious delivery. "Takism" in particular, features a rather plaintive muted trombone solo and a bright fiddle retort as well. None of these songs are going to thud you over the head and drag you back to their cave, they will just sully you with perfumes and cocktails until you go willingly. Beautiful, elegant stuff.

Rites of Uncovering
(Thrill Jockey)

Chicago's Arbouretum goes for a less slinky approach, putting some low-heat Ziggy Stardust glam on with a side of Gordon Lightfoot spectral shimmer. The songs here seem to almost emanate from woodcuts, subtle little rhythms and slight guitar melodies bolstering up Dave Heumann's voice. I was almost ready to call him out on his Bonny 'Prince" Billy affectations, but a look at the bio shows that he's played along side his highness, and we all know a Prince is only as mighty as his court. The similarity is strongest on "Pale Rider Blues" but Huemann has a much stronger voice and the band approaches a Bad Seeds menace behind him. "Spirit of Shiloam" is a delicious ethereal number that moves at the pace of a wound down music box, Huemann's voice floating around the song like smoke.

I saw a band recently that mined his same low-key vein and a musician friend told me that the reason they can pull this off, sound so complete is that the musicians actually listen to each other, and I think he's right. The Beatlesque bands of the world suffer from horror vacui - a fear of empty places - and fill every pocket of air with whatever they can find. Bands like Arbouretum know how to build an intricate song that still manages to allow some ventilation.

The band gets into an Allmanesque jam on the 11-minute "The Rise" starting out with a semi-Appalachian chant that ascends into an artier version of a Southern rock boogie workout. It's a great moment on the record where momentum takes over, pushing this thing further down the laser without it falling completely apart. It's what I want jam bands to sound like, but they never do. Arbouretum is a band that understands that the volume knob turns, that there are times to whisper and times to scream.

Do Say Make Think
You, You're a History in Rust

My friends in the north that are responsible for Godspeed You Black Emporer and the like have issues another sepia-hued jewel under the Do Say Make Think mantle. Like all groups on Constellation, it seems, it started as a small instrumental unit that grew with each baroque album name. Here, the songs are fleshed out with Neil Young pastoral textures and warm soft vocals provided by kindred spirits Akron/Family and others. What I like about the Constellation rock bands is that they have an immaculate sense of texture, and this is a glowing example. The band moves in shimmering unison, allowing a guitar here, a fiddle there sprout out to form the backbone of the song on "A With Living."

"The Universe!" does provide a beacon of rockist prowess in the middle of the record, but that wave crashes onto the shore supplanted by the rustic guitar fingerpicking and sandlewood aroma of "A Tender History in Rust" a song so campfire pleasant that it even includes whistling. "Executioner Blues" is positively breathless, the band becoming one complex, compelling pulse. It's like running across a field before a storm. The album closes with the sweet majestic "In Mind" where horns and banjos and guitars and vibes all intermingle like morning glory vines on a fence, slowly growing more intricate in their design without ever blocking the light from coming through. This delicate touch is the finest form of excess you can only find in well-crafted soft rock (I guess soft post-rock, in this case), one that doesn't betray its architecture until you are already living there.

(Alex V. Cook's book of rocknroll observations, 'Darkness, Racket and Twang' is available now from the SideCartel)

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Alex V. Cook
Music Editor

Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com

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