Maturing Australian folk-pop band Sodastream is still able to pen haunting melody cloaked in warm, organic instrumentation.
The critical response to Sodastream has, over the years, been a muted kind of praise in complete confluence with the band's pared-back folk/pop sound: they made a small splash in the UK with A Minor Revival, the band's third album, but how soon we forget. Worse: these albums are a heady invitation to critics already a little too adjective-prone to wax poetic about the effects of sparse musical beauty. Guilty as charged, with my "music to break your heart"s and so on, but you've got to say something, right? And better this than the evasiveness of labeling sedentary art "boring". Sodastream is not boring. Their beauty may be subdued, and it may not be in any great way unique, but in its modesty these soft ballads slide together to form a cohesive statement, found on the song "Anti", and it says, simply: "When the day gets much too heavy … These things calm me down".
More than any other Sodastream record so far, Reservations is, well, reserved. J. Walker's viola/slide guitar/keyboard contributions to A Minor Revival aren't so actively missed as the is instrumentation toned down, pared to a more straightforward folk sound. Marty Brown (from the criminally overlooked band Art of Fighting) provides the same subtle percussion (lots of brushed snares) as on that previous release. You get the feeling that the musical community of Melbourne finally feels like home for this Perth band -- no more need to prove themselves, no more burning desire to change the world.
And you know what? That's just fine. It's fine that it takes a while for Sodastream's muted, flowing folk to reach full effect. At first you may think of it as a less subtle take on adult-pop, like Ed Harcourt or the White Birch. In fact, there's a pantheon of artists in this new-folk bin, not quite individualistic enough to be labeled freaky, but of course that's not their intent -- folks like recent fave Tobias Frieberg, for example. These artists are more than happy to create beauty for its own sake. The common ancestor is, of course, Simon & Garfunkel, and that group's soft-focus influence is a constant throughout Reservations (most clearly on the title track, which uses a harmony from "I Am A Rock"). Don't hold that against the song, though, as it's a wonderful, pretty construction of pop-folk.
A string of songs in the middle of the record, from "Anniversary" to "Firelines", are so confluent, so soft, so low, that they blend into an almost seamless entity. The result is somnambulistic in the best sense of the word -- sleepy music that doesn't put you to sleep. Even on "Anti", when Smith says "I'm going to scream for a little while", he never sounds like he's ever really going to: Sodastream's much too reserved (too Victorian, perhaps?) for their singer ever to scream.
Folk music can be assuredly organic, but it must also be backed by interesting songwriting, and it's here that, once or twice, Sodastream slips a little. "Don't Make a Scene" is beautiful and static, but that's not enough. The melody waffles around without a real sense of direction, and because of this the song fades quickly. You can, with Paul Simon, be perpetually in search of a certain texture rather than a melody or chorus, but without something to hook the listener in, all that's left behind is vague impression.
Still, throughout Reservations Sodastream demonstrates that they know simple, unadorned melody as well as anyone out there. "Warm July" resists the song's innate anthemic temptation to sit easily in an acoustic cocoon. "Tickets to the Fight" mines harmonium and plucked acoustic guitars for a rich vein of melancholy. The list continues. As with the best of this kind of music, small details elevate a song to near perfection: on "Anniversary", Smith sings, "I've tried, yes I have tried / And I won't be holding on". It's the 'and' (rather than the expected 'but') that gets you, the final decision a small twist of conviction. Just like that, as a listener you're putty in the song's hands.