[27 April 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
First off, let’s get this out of the way: This is not a comeback album, or a return to form, or anything like that. If Kilgour has been anything over the course of his 30-odd years in music, he has been consistent. He was, after all, in the Clean—quietly one of the most influential bands in independent music—and they just turned out the solid Mister Pop in 2009, and Kilgour has his own string of great solo albums, including classics like 2002’s A Feather in the Engine. He hasn’t recorded with the Heavy Eights, though, in four years, but in listening to Left by Soft, you’d never know it.
The band recorded these songs at a cabin outside Dunedin, New Zealand, and you can feel the laid back nature of their surroundings in these loose rock songs. Kilgour and company did very little in the way of overdubs here, and rarely cleaned anything up too much in the mix. The result is an organic and dusty rock record that still manages to shimmer at all the right times.
These guys bookend the record with two instrumentals, the title track and “Purple Balloon”, as if to tell us they’re a full band, a cohesive unit, and not just singer and backing band. The two songs also highlight the two sides of the band’s sound. “Left by Soft” is a crunchy rock number. The guitars ring and buzz, the rhythm section charges ahead, building momentum into the rest of the record, while closer “Purple Balloon” comforts with dreamy but thick layers. The playing here comes from guys who know each other well, who have an established chemistry. So if these songs feel loose, it’s by design, by the framing of riffs and the crash of drums, because the playing is incredibly tight all the way through.
In between those two songs, there’s also a subtle variety to what they do. “Way Down Here” is particularly impressive, shifting from jangling pop—Kilgour’s long-established specialty—to grinding rock. As our first taste of Kilgour’s vocals on the record, it shows range there, too. He starts with a watery warble, but when the band kicks it into high gear, he adopts a youthful shout, inviting us down into the fray with him. It juxtaposes nicely with his sweeter singing on the rippling “Steet Arrow” or the dusty shuffle of “Pop Song”.
Suffice it to say, Left by Soft charges out of the gate, but the middle of the record slows the tempo and attempts to thicken the layers and shift tones. With lesser bands, this might come off sounding flabby, but not with these guys. “Autumn Sun” stands out with its guitar heroics, the solos bending and squealing over the otherwise boozy stomp of the song. “Diamond Mine”, on the other hand, becomes a huge, shining pop song. The layers here get buffed to a blinding sheen, but the tight rhythm section still keeps the energy up. Kilgour layers his vocals in effects here, and buries them down in the mix. While you’re straining to hear what he’s saying, you almost miss how the guitars take on muscle here. They build and swell, growing a fuzz as they do, and the song keeps stretching out so when Kilgour sings “And if you keep on going, the sky will break through on the other side”, you know he plans to do just that. This song, bright as it is, is searching for more light, trying to eliminate the boundaries around its sonic landscape, and damned if it doesn’t succeed.
David Kilgour’s sure hand is all over this record. Like the best stuff from the Clean, Left by Soft sounds immediately recognizable, but still difficult to pin down. Is it a pop record? Yes. Is it a rock record? Absolutely. Kilgour and his band rip through these songs with a vitality and energy that never loses its careful touch. They build echoing layers without ever obscuring the distinct parts and vibrant melodies of each song. Sure, Kilgour has been around a long while, but it is not always about the old dog learning new tricks. Sometimes, it’s about the old dog showing the puppies how it should be done.