Remember being 15? Remember thinking that The Dark Side Of The Moon was the best album ever made, Led Zeppelin was the best rock ‘n’ roll band in history, and Oasis was the only band that really got you, deep down in your heart?
The Soft Hills sure do. On their latest release, Chromatisms, the band reveal themselves to be devout in the religion of the groove—pious slaves to the old order of guitar-bass-drums psychedelia, unable to escape the shoulders of the fabled Giants of Rock. Unfortunately, this is not an optimistic discovery.
The album is essentially a grade school pipe dream. It’s easy to imagine a gangly boy with hair he’s just grown out wearing an oversized Black Sabbath tee-shirt and skinny jeans listening to Chromatisms and thinking, “Yeah, man! Finally, a band that makes music like it used to sound!” Conversely, it’s just as easy to imagine a veteran of the 20th century, someone who was a fan of Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin or even Oasis when they were actually around, thinking, “What is this nonsense?”
On a track-by-track basis, comparisons come unnervingly quickly. Sweet Louise uses a chord progression and melody akin to Zeppelin’s Dancing Days: in fact, singer and songwriter Garrett Hobba’s opening verse, “Sweet Louise/tried to kill me/with a wave of her hair,” could just as well be a rewrite of Plant’s “I said it’s alright/you know it’s alright/I guess it’s all in my heart.” Marigolds and Horse & Carriage are mid-‘80s Pink Floyd acid ballads, all breathy vocal harmonies and fat bass lines. And The Gifts You Hide pays faithful homage to an electric, solo Neil Young.
But it’s not possible to rewrite Dancing Days, or Time, or Hey, Hey, My, My. (And if it is, The Soft Hills haven’t done it.) Sure, anachronism can be a good thing—Girls does a fine job of channeling the fuzzy rock of the ‘60s, and Free Energy has been living in late-‘70s arenas for some time now. But Hobba’s songwriting is simply not up to par: melody, lyric, and arrangement come off like caricatures of their desired styles; it seems often that in an attempt to replicate the feel of a classic rock song, all of the fun is lost.
The Soft Hills do have some contemporary influences, and with them, they are slightly more successful. Hobba’s warm and engaging voice is much better suited to tracks like Dear Mr. Moonlight and The Gifts You Hide, whose Death Cab for Cutie-like melodies recall Ben Gibbard’s early glory days. Still, inevitably, the songs themselves do not quite sell shrink-wrapped angst the way Death Cab’s used to. Similarly, the band attempts at a Blitzen Trapper freak-folk only to come off as simply not raucous enough.
Of course, credit must be given where it is due: The Soft Hills, as a band of musicians, have an incredibly tight and powerful sound. It is what they do with their sound that inevitably keeps them from being the rock gods they dream to be on Chromatisms. But with these musical chops, it’s not an impossible task to pull off—so perhaps it is time for The Soft Hills to turn off their record player, jam until their songs become unrecognizable, and go back into the studio.