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Soft Hills
The Bird Is Coming Down To Earth Ben Graham , February 10th, 2012 10:15

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Seattle's Soft Hills sound much as their name suggests- gentle, rolling, agrarian, a rural American landscape captured in the grainy, slightly blurred light of an early seventies road movie. “Kill the engine, we're slowing down,” runs the refrain of album opener 'Phoenix', while the bittersweet nostalgia of 'When We Were Young and Free' and the even-more downbeat 'Midnight Owls' build bridges between Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on one side and Galaxie 500 and Low on the other. High harmonies vie with subtle slide guitar and muffled drums in a vast, echoing space of unspecified sadness.

Soft Hills' natural contemporaries would seem to be Fleet Foxes and Midlake, but while those two bands' many fans should enjoy this album too, those who find the Foxes a tad wet and Midlake workmanlike more often than inspirational shouldn't automatically dismiss Soft Hills as more of the same. The burrowing analogue synth and vocal effects on 'River Boat' brings an insinuating, modern-psychedelic edge to the song, and when the fuzz guitars crash in on 'Tidal Waves' you think that maybe Soft Hills are actually laid-back cousins to stoner psych titans Arbouretum or the excellent UK band Wolf People, whose recreation of classic psych-folk-rock is informed by their early love of hip-hop mixtapes. Soft Hills have a similar ear for sonic detail, and never lose sight of the all-important groove while telling their melancholy tales.

Mostly though, this is an acoustic downer of a record. Songs like 'Purple Moon' and especially 'Return to Eden' evoke the same sense of loss and dislocation that permeated so much early seventies American rock music, as in the wake of Manson, Altamont and Watergate, those sensitive longhairs struggled to come to terms with the tattered remnants of the hippy dream and the fact that, as Hunter S Thompson noted, the counterculture had passed its high watermark and the tide was already receding. When Joni or CSN sang that they had to find their way back to the garden, they already knew that it was too late; the mountains of cocaine they subsequently devoured to try and maintain the illusion eroded any lingering innocence along with their nasal passages. Soft Hills' disillusionment may be more personal than political, more concerned with lost love than with the erosion of civil rights and freedom of speech in their homeland, but when 'Falling Leaves' ends the CD on a plaintive “take me back to my home” the desolation and yearning for a better world, vanished yet half-remembered, seems universal.

Inevitably, given their reference points, there are moments when Soft Hills' sound slight; even middle-of-the-road bland. But there's a beguiling soulfulness and a darkness to this record that will seep into your heart if you give it a chance. Experimental but never self-indulgent - the whole album clocks a modest 38 minutes - there's strange treasures hidden in these Hills.