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Soft Walls
Not As Bad As It Seems Bernie Brooks , August 7th, 2019 09:18

Lo-fi rock Re-Animator Dan Reeves remains a slave to the repetition on Soft Walls' third and best full-length, says Bernie Brooks

Recently, a helpful acquaintance informed me that the DIY indie-rock aesthetic is exhausted, dying, done. Its lo-fi sound – noisy fuzzy, imperfect – is over, may it rest in peace. Once, it was an unavoidable by-product of the DIY ethos, focused as it is on independence and economy, necessity and expediency. But now, thanks to computers and more accessible equipment, it's possible to value the ethos while avoiding the scummy sonics. Depending on the situation, it might even be cheaper to make things sound "better". Divorced from its original context, the DIY sound, the argument goes, has become an affectation at best. Besides, how many times can bands go back to the same well, draw up the same influences? When was the last time any of these bands did anything new?

As you might've guessed, I didn't buy it – and still don't. Look, just because something was at some point inextricably linked to economic necessity doesn't mean it's lacking as an aesthetic choice in and of itself. That's a value judgment. Up to the artist and listener. And even if the influences themselves are tired, that doesn't mean it's impossible to do a variety of great things with them – even if those things aren't entirely new. Anyway, newness isn't always the point. There's a place for growth and craft within a form, and that, too, can be great. Every time I think lo-fi indie rock is dead as dead can be, bloated on the beach, I discover at least a dozen people running around, reattaching limbs, shocking life back into it. And sure enough, for the last decade and change, there's Dan Reeves running around with a defibrillator.

Aside from his work in various bands throughout the years – his own Soft Walls and the excellent Cold Pumas among them – Reeves's Faux Discx record label nurtured denizens of DIY across the globe from 2006 until 2017, when he unexpectedly shuttered the label, announcing that, while its catalog would continue to be available through Bandcamp, there would be no represses or new releases going forward. Then, just before the 2018 Christmas holidays, Reeves popped up on Twitter with a link to a new track from his one-man band – his first new music since the dissolution of Faux Discx: "New Soft Walls, I don't know what I'm doing with this, but here is the first song from an [as-yet unnamed] or scheduled for release LP."

The track, 'Misperception', would indeed lead-off the third full-length Soft Walls record, Not As Bad As It Seems. At the time, it seemed to herald a welcome return to, or maybe a subtle evolution of Reeves's signature sound, which had been fully established by the second Soft Walls LP, No Time, and doubled down on by his Live From MT8X cassette EP. An organ and motorik beat lock together, followed by a subtly groovy bassline, cyclical, raga-like guitar, and cool, self-critical, dead-pan vocals that eventually become almost a mantra: "I'm trying to be more positive." Some artists are slaves to the rhythm, Reeves is slave to the repetition – pushing any given element of a song to its breaking point, adding or changing them only when absolutely necessary. It can feel as if nearly every part of any given Soft Walls composition – save vocals and guitar leads – could be reduced to a loop if need be.

A few months later, early this spring, I exchanged emails with Dan. There was a link attached. The Soft Walls record was done, but he still wasn't sure what he was doing with it. He was open to releasing it via a simpatico label or on his own, he said. From that point on, I listened to it regularly, more than willing to put up with SoundCloud's cumbersome UI to do so. Eventually, in late June, Reeves opted to self-release Not As Bad As It Seems on cassette via Bandcamp.

The album's great surprise is that 'Misperception' is a fake-out. In his work as a graphic designer, Reeves has employed templates to great effect, and his work as Soft Walls has often felt analogous to that. Just as it was exciting to see how Reeves could keep a format visually interesting from one LP cover to the next, so it was hearing how each Soft Walls track could find new points of interest within the set of limitations he had seemingly imposed upon himself. But from the first bars of Not As Bad As It Seems's second cut, 'Every Target Can Afford To Wait' – with its frazzled, punk vibe – it's clear that the template is gone, replaced by something akin to a comparatively wide-open style guide. Not As Bad As It Seems is still very much a Soft Walls record, but a much more immediate one, full of left turns - from the harsh wall of noise that opens album standout 'As Thin As A Thread' to the minute-long, leather-jacket rock swagger of 'Ex-King'. This completely pared-back full-length, free of excess at a lean 28 minutes, finds Reeves trading in brevity – another surprise given that his previous release, Live From MT8X, found him pushing his repeat-o-rock to the extreme, stretching four songs to 33 minutes.

The album's presser describes Not As Bad As It Seems's vibrant sound - covered in craquelure and practically flocked – as "the closest Reeves has got to his sonic utopia." After years of experimentation, Reeves has become an auteur of lo-fi DIY. His aesthetic is anything but dead, anything but tired. He is one of rock's finest Re-Animators, capable of dosing a batch of stitched together parts and returning them to life – parts that, in lesser hands, would remain used up, dead and rotten. Even if his newest Frankenstein's monster was a soulless golem, it would still be compelling to a degree, thanks to the forward-movement and urgency of his compositions. But here's the thing: Reeves leaves so much of himself in these creations - whether through his electric performances or lyrics full of radical honesty and relatable self-reflection – that Not As Bad As It Seems can't help but be imbued with a surplus of spirit.