[10 December 2009]
Softly Towards The Light, the third full-length from the Black Hollies, achieves a pretty remarkable thing: seemingly authentic and seamless transportation. One spin of this New Jersey quartet’s psychedelia-soaked disc will have you dusting off your bellbottoms. Their harmonious sound, complemented by lead singer Justin Angelo Morey’s temperate and diplomatic pipes, doesn’t just mimic mid-‘60s British psychedelics; it’s the real deal.
The slow-rolling acoustics layered beneath fuzzed guitar solos on “When You’re Not There” could easily fool the most discerning record collector, though these are not all patented hippie jams. There’s versatility on Softly Towards The Light. Not only are the Black Hollies well-versed students of British psychedelia, on their third record they display a prowess for expansion and sonic evolution.
“Can’t Stop These Tears (From Falling)” begins with a mysterious, Doors-esque bassline, enticing with heavy doses of unabashed sexuality. It’s actually a rather alarming listen, and not just because a simple track, hidden late in the album possesses such potent power. What’s alarming is how the Black Hollies have managed to separate themselves from the hoards of modern rock and roll bands, clearly influenced in no small part by psychedelic garage rock.
The Black Hollies achieve this separation on Softly Towards the Light by following a rather simple formula: keep the production sparse and let the tracks breathe for themselves. Nothing feels constrained or contrived. What’s more, this being the Black Hollies’ third record, there are no signs of them letting go of these authentic ideals. If anything, in modern rock terms, the Black Hollies have moved backwards on Softly.
As evidenced with bands that start out drawing heavy influence from a specific and seemingly deceased genre, such as modern rock giants Kings of Leon, surviving until the third record is a respectable feat. It’s also the point at which modern rock bands must look in the mirror, quickly consider their morals, and decide whether they’re ready to sink with those morals or swim with the fishes. We all know which route Kings of Leon took.
And for the benefit of purists everywhere, the Black Hollies went in the opposite direction. Throw in some more palpable hooks and lather Softly Towards the Light with some thick production, and you’ve got a hit record. But damn it, changing just one little thing on the pertinent, organ-infused groove of the opener, “Run With Me Run”, would be a crime and a damn shame. The Black Hollies have studied an influential and often misunderstood genre of rock and roll and brought it back from the dead. They’re not revivalists, they’re purists.
“Number Ten Girl”, a cryptic song of lost love with subtle harmonies detailing the background, is drummer Nicholas Ferrante’s lone opportunity to shine on Softly. His steady backbeat keeps the track rolling on with steadfast precision. And while Ferrante’s work is obvious on the next track, the rollicking, rough-around-the-edges garage swing of “Lead Me To Your Firm”, Ferrante hammers a little more in sync with the rest of the Black Hollies, rather than steal the show.
And what a show it is. Softly Towards the Light is a party record. The Black Hollies are largely unknown, but until the preferences of the general rock and roll public come full circle, they’ll probably remain that way. Which isn’t really all that important. As stated, it’s a party record, and probably could have passed for one 40 years ago too.