The Soft Hills: Chromatisms

[18 March 2013]

By John Bergstrom

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

The Soft Hills are a legitimate, bona fide psychedelic band. Yes, musical cousins like My Morning Jacket and Fleet Foxes have at the very least explored the imagery of Native American spiritualism. But for evidence of to just what extent singer/guitarist Garrett Hobba’s band embrace it, you need look no further than the peyote trip video for “Phoenix” from their 2012 album The Bird Is Coming Down to Earth. Beneath the bucolic folk-rock, the weirdness is almost harrowing.

The unabashed psychedelic mysticism and mythology continue on the Soft Hills’ new album, Chromatisms. You don’t have to go further than track one to find a reference to “runnin’ with wolves”. There are songs called “Mighty River” and “Desert Rose”. No doubt, your taste for Chromatisms is going to be effected by your tolerance for lines like “You won’t forget her / She holds the black key of Un.” But if you’re a fan of the certain type of Americana that is rooted in the Pacific Northwest but evokes the sunswept Southwest, you will most likely have no problem.

And that will be to your benefit, because Chromatisms is a rewarding trip to take. It’s like a sonic fever dream, with Hobba and his bandmates serving as your guides, assuring you with their calm control over the chaos.

Musically, the Soft Hills’ template is rather simple yet enticingly unique. What this Seattle band has done is take the languid tempos and ragged, molten, Neil Young & Crazy Horse feedback of classic grunge and applied them to more reflective, golden-hued contemporary indie songwriting. And they have added some of the grandiosity and crushing guitar sweep of what used to be called shoegaze.

If ramshackle opener “Riding High” has you thinking you’ve stumbled into another run-of-the-mill, post-Fleet Foxes, “new Americana” band, the dirty, acid rock verses and shimmering chorus of “Sweet Louise” will convince you of deeper, wider ambitions. The claustrophobic “Dear Mr. Moonlight” sounds like an Americanized Slowdive track, stripped of some of the sculpted glow but none of the tension. On the aforementioned “Mighty River” the band use simple keyboard strings and that liquid-metal feedback to scale the heights of a majestic crescendo.

However, the central power and magnificence of Chromatisms lie in a pair of tracks that make up the literal and spiritual center of the album. “Payroll” is a stunning, moving exercise in well-executed minimalism. Nothing but keyboard bleeps and gently-strummed guitar accompany Hobba’s rich, babyfaced-Neil Young voice as he relates a tragic story of someone who “burn[ed] through all [their] nine lives”. “Un” is an outright epic. Starting off as a space-rock arpeggio that recalls the best of Radiohead, it stops abruptly, flashing a bit of straight-up Pearl Jam groove before taking off into the stratosphere with a scorching, crushing final minute. You’ll find yourself pausing to take a breath.

Tracks like these show the Soft Hills growing and maturing as songwriters, arrangers, and musicians. They reference grunge but don’t sound like a neo-grunge band. They envelop you in guitar effects, but they are not nu-gazers. And so on. Maybe it’s to do with the consistently warm, close harmonies of Hobba and bassist Brett Massa.

After reaching such a lofty pinnacle, Chromatisms can’t help but come down off the mountain a bit, and “Horse & Carriage” and “The Gifts You Hide” do seem rote by comparison. But then the twilight vibe and weeping lap steel of “Desert Rose” provide a fitting sendoff for an album that burns and smolders in equal measure.

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