Album Reviews

The Soft Hills – The Bird is Coming Down to Earth

Ashleen Aguilar / February 15, 2012
In the 1991 Oliver Stone biopic, The Doors, Jim Morrison leads Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, John Densmore and Pamela Courson into the California desert to take peyote. Out of their minds, they marvel at a hawk crossing in front of the sun and dance over the wind-waved dunes. At one point, Jim separates himself from the group to follow a hallucination, an Indian on horseback, and he meets the memory of a shaman in a cave. The Bird Is Coming Down to Earth could have backtracked this scene.

Stone used that aimless wandering to explain that Jim was lost as he tried to build up his creative confidence. Seattle’s folk four-piece The Soft Hills use that same idea in their latest album, The Bird Is Coming Down to Earth, to understand how to deal with death and loss. The record consists of warm, beautiful folk with a twist of psychedelia and dark thematic overlay. Throughout the album, Garrett Hobba’s voice is delicate and reverberating, and his backup’s airy harmonies (Brittan Drake, Randall Skrasek and Brett Massa) fill out the songs the way smoke swirls and expands to fill a glass sphere. The slight country accent combines with steel guitars to set the album in rural America. The melodies are simple, many of them mostly harmonies over finger-picked guitars (“Falling Leaves,” “Days When We Were Young and Free”), which leaves space for the challenging content. Thematically, the album is dark, but the lyrics are balanced by the warmth that flows through much of it.

Hobba opens the album with the idea of wandering with “Phoenix.” He wants to find something new; explore like Beatniks with his unnamed companion. The life of “Phoenix” parallels that of its eponymous mythical creature. The fire bird lives, dies in flames, and is reborn from the ashes. The song is driven forward by percussive verses, paused during beautifully harmonic bridges (which invoke fire imagery, “Fire and ashes/this whole town’s gonna bleed/The fever passes/but I’m still down on my knees”), and restarted with the closing verse. But the ideas of brokenness and loss are first conveyed here (“…it always comes down to you/When you look inside you’ll see you’re broke in two.”), and they continue through “Midnight Owls” and “River Boat.”

“Tidal Waves” is a needed contrast between the two halves of the album. Distortion and dissonance control this heavy song. It’s largely instrumental, with the scant lyrics speaking of falling from the edge, gaping holes, and being crushed by tidal waves. They suggest this is the point when Hobba is the most confused and torn. But he seems to get through it in the second half of the album, with songs like “Purple Moon” and “It Won’t Be Long.” “Falling Leaves” closes the record: “See the rainbow amongst the clouds/Clear the timber fallen down…Suddenly, the raven calls/Leads me back to my home.” The song recognizes the loss, acknowledges the pain, but finds the hope – the rebirth of the phoenix.

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