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On a recent round of press Manics motormouth Nicky Wire complained that the Eno-produced Coldplay had 'conquered the world by sounding like fucking Enya.' Given that, the grumpy bassman is unlikely to be tempted by Philadelphia's Sun Airway, whose second album takes Martin and co’s recent forays into Enya-esque soundscapery, plays down the histrionics and throws in an ocean of New Order keyboards and trippy percussion. The result is a borderline-landfill-indie take on what we were laughably calling chillwave (or glo-fi or washpop* or dreampsyche or wavegaze or ambi-pure** or lush-house or honeybeat or hushrock) for a mercifully brief time in 2010. If this sounds hideous beyond imagining, well, who can blame you? To cap it off the album is peppered with ambient mini-instrumentals called ‘Activity 1, 2 & 3’. Other track titles like ‘New Movements’ and, shudderingly, ‘Symphony in White No.3’ hardly inspire confidence either. On paper this stinks to the high heavens.
Which just goes to show that you shouldn’t judge until you’ve hit the play button, because you and Nicky Wire are in for a pleasant surprise. It’s with much relief that we can report Soft Fall to be an enjoyable, if never actually thrilling hour of pastoral electronica with subtle moods and a satisfying knack for a well-constructed pop chorus.
Perhaps it helps that singer/producer Jon Barthmus cut his teeth in indie-rock also-rans The A-Sides, as his approach to the lush washes and soundscapes usually has solid songsmithery at its heart. His plaintive voice isn’t a million miles from the aforementioned Mssr Martin, nor Mssrs Ashcroft or McNamara*, and like those he’s capable of translating no small amount of atmosphere into his toplines, though the lyrics themselves tend to trade in vaguely trippy soundbites and snatches of rootless melancholia. When it all comes together it’s actually rather fine - particularly on ‘Close’, which adds a ramped up trip-hop beat over a wash of keyboards like a candy-cane Joy Division, or the wonky house of title track ‘Soft Fall’. ‘Black Noise’ is the highlight, making a stab at a bonfide indie anthem, but deliberately scuppering it with scatty, distant beats and a wash of chimes and echoes and backwards keyboard. A strong remix could generate a proper radio hit with this, but its’ charm is actually in the decision to veer away from the obvious commercial route.
This is by no means a perfect record, for all the attempts at lush landscapes and sonic cathedrals the sound palette here is actually quite limited and there’s a feel of one or two good tricks and ideas used a few too many times. The likes of ‘New Movements’ and ‘Over My Head’ default to a four-to-the-floor-beat-and-strings combo that is the beating heart of most commercial pop these days, especially in the Boyband quarter, fortunately Barthmus is skilled enough to veer his creations away from the obvious marks, preferring the more interesting textures that are always the record’s saving grace.
Good rather than great, and enjoyable if rarely fully captivating, what’s clear is that Barthmus has a talent both as a producer, arranger and writer that could well pay dividends a couple of records down the line, in the meantime we have Soft Fall and things could be a whole lot worse.
*Might not all be real things.
** Actually an air freshener
* Younger readers might want to google this last one