You’ve probably never heard of Softer Still. The four piece effectmeisters from Surrey have a nice line in brilliant music that most radio won’t go near. Which is a shame, because as ‘indie’ became that descriptor that seemingly sucked in all new music, the sweet retro throwbacks that Softer Still produce are more indie and experimental than most.
NME called “Bliss”, their catchy, breezy release from last summer “stunning” and praised their clever experimentation with synths. They’re more dreampop by accident than design though – there’s a very contemporary feel to their shimmery, melody-driven music, especially in new EP release “Visions of You” which launched at The Old Blue Last. The bug had bitten me hard – I looped their stuff whenever I was driving in anything close to sunshine, and headed over to see if Softer Still’s live performance matched their beautifully produced studio efforts.
OK, so live drums, two guitars and a small room are never going to sound like studio tracks, but Softer Still are still dreampop. Kind of. There is a more analogue feel to their live show, more like a Cure or Police feel with guitars upfront. They’re still instantly recognisable though, and it feels like this EP was definitely written to work as well in front of an audience as it does through your headphones.
The EP springs out of the blocks with “Wishing Well”, jangly riffs and big drum sounds chase a hypnotic synth, instantly putting a smile on your face. It’s deceptively uptempo, full of clever little electric guitar frippery and makes great use of the male lead/female backing vocal split. Slightly eerie chords here and there stop the track from being bubblegum sweet, helped by breaks in melody to give a killer bassline room. The lyrics bring in themes of nostalgia and yearning that feature throughout the EP, but sadder notes feature, like ‘make a wish and hope it comes true / do you care if you cry all night again?’ anchoring this dreampop gem somewhere that we can all emotionally reach.
Fairly low tropical-sounding pipes open “Forever Faces” before a cheeky, repetitive riff dances much higher up and the languid vocals drip through the cracks. This is a song that bounces along, reminding me of a childlike Mario Kart soundtrack that’s been smoothed over here and there. The nostalgic, hazy feeling is coloured more darkly by lyrics looking back on ‘forever faces / at different stages of my life / loving you / gave me something to do’. The slinky drum work here deserves special mention, standing out especially well live.
The most distinctive track “1993” is a retro take on what the future’s music would be like. It’s anchored by big drums and an addictively funky bassline that sounded fantastic with the natural reverb of Old Blue. A ringing guitar riff incorporates some original slide elements, kind of like throwing effects pedals at a pedal steel player. Again, the lyrics have a longing to them, reminiscing about more gentle times but never getting upset about it – the refrain “innocence exists in 1993 / innocence exists when you’re here with me” treads a careful line between telling us how we should feel and giving listeners enough to project their own feelings onto the track. There’s no deviation from the fantastic vocal performances either, although the eerie quality on the recording didn’t come through as strongly live. It’s in songs like this that you feel the dreampop label doesn’t do enough – “1993” is more like a Smiths track (minus Morrissey’s self-indulgent misery and doomed romance) or a The War on Drugs rhythm-centric soft anthem with guitar textures melting into electronics.
Softer Still wrap the EP up with a slow-burning goodbye. “Junipero” takes a flowing melodic verse and adds a chorus that’s more magical incantation or trance-like vision than singalong anthem. Fairly rapid guitar picking under the verse stops it from becoming a dirge, and a gorgeous synth tone ties the whole thing together with an old-school sound. It’s harder to tease apart the various instruments here, especially live. “Junipero” is an airy, breathy take of the EP’s themes and approach. There’s a tinge of sadness and yearning here which makes you feel like it’s the last dance at a school disco, or the band scene in those high school movies you watched as a kid. “Visions of You” is a fantastic effort
“Visions of You” will jump straight to the top of your favourites list if you need pop music in your life but want a take on the world that isn’t just happy sweetness and simple major chords. It’ll never be the kind of music to get huge radio airplay but that’s not the point. Live, in a small room and without the hiding space that limitless studio production offers, Softer Still’s songwriting talents shine and they perform flawlessly. If you can see them live then do – you’ll appreciate how good the EP is even more afterwards.