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Reviews

The Soft Close-Ups
City Air Jeremy Allen , June 4th, 2014 14:39

The Soft Close-Up's debut album is certainly a lot fresher than the fetid titular gas that surrounds all you megalopolitan big cheeses, though there are moments where the claustrophobia busy city life can induce threatens to come and smother you out of existence with a wet copy of City AM (it'll at least save you from putting a brave face on it any longer). The witty and observational lyrics are dispatched with a studied detachment, but you sense that life isn't always easy in and amongst the polluted air, among the buses and the bikes and the white vans, and the ostensible smart Alec might be hiding something more tender and painful beneath the facade.

There's no hiding the fact City Air is a London album, and more pertinently it imbues a sense of what it might feel like to live there now. It's also an LP of two halves, like London itself. Just over 50% is wry, observational pop - the title track included - with major 7ths struck unsparingly. The protagonist casts a critical eye over fractured relationships, clumsy bedsit fumbles and awkward hallway encounters, and you get the sense he's entirely ruined by the amount of time spent alone watching kitchen sink dramas over the years.

"You say you're done with the city and you just want some fresh air," sings David Shah, highlighting the British obsession with escaping to some purported pastoral utopia, "but you'll never move to the country because there's simply nothing there." And therein lies the rub; you can't live in it, you can't live out of it. If there is frustration, there's also an undoubted sense of affection, nay, love for city life too in all it's seedy complexity (again more often observed than partaken in).

Nearly the entire other half of the record is made with just some delicate acoustic picking by Aug Stone and Shah's charming vocal, but it never feels bucolic and there's never a sense of freedom. It's as though these songs are written in stolen moments, quietly at 3am with a bottle of red picked up in a taxi from an Archway offy on the way back from the pub, or at the park or crowded hillside where drunk men kick balls at you, either accidentally or on purpose. They're so quiet some of these tunes that they're almost desperate not to draw attention to themselves, and in doing so, they ironically do draw attention to themselves while looking a bit paranoid.

Perhaps the sleekest track, 'Awkward Scenes', is so moody and introspective that it almost implodes in on itself with its profusion of minor chords. On 'Small Salvage', Shah's voice - a delightful instrument in its own right that compliments the thoughtful, mellow mood here - is more nuanced than in previous incarnations (he used to sing with noughties north London glam outfit Luxembourg). 'Birthmark' is jaunty in a Smiths at their most jaunty kind of way, but actually it's predominantly the acoustic set - like 'Losing My Place' - that really sparkles. 'Your Likely Years', in which the singer falls back on rudimentary arithmetic to deliver the cheerfully doomy line "it only leaves you fifty summers more", is enjoyably pragmatic.

'On The Mainland' - a mid-paced ballad with a descending bass line - is a little predictable, but album closer 'Inroads' descends too, though the path it treads is far more intricate and it's really rather lovely as a result. It's as though the prettiness is a reaction to all the ugliness, and the gallows humour comes from a pervading sinking feeling throughout. It's a sinking feeling that exemplifies modern times in the urban sprawl, and the real beauty of City Air is in watching the Soft Close Ups as they try to think their way out of the quicksand.

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