The Softies: A Retrospective
By David Greenwald | 1 January 2006
She fell in love with me
I was polite to her
A soft sadness had her much more than her loneliness
- Wilco, “Venus Stop the Train”
I never thought that I would be
So close to you that I could see
The way your hair goes wavy
When you wake up
- The Softies, “You and Only You”
The best music is deceptive. One-hit wonders remain so because their music lacks depth and mystery — every hook, every clever turn of phrase, is as naked and glaringly accessible as the sultry models gracing the covers of Playboy or Maxim. As the calendar year turns, such songs are replaced by similarly disposable flavors of the week, leaving more subtle, nuanced artists to weather the test of time. It is these albums, the Abbey Roads and OK Computers that refuse to surrender all of their treasures upon the first listen, that provide the most provocative, deeply satisfying experience.
This is no secret, of course, and raising a band to the pedestal of canonical status demands that its music withstands the erosion of generations — the inevitable changes in styles, aesthetic standards, and at the individual level, the redundancy of hundreds of repetitions. What separates The Beach Boys from The Turtles, or Radiohead from Chumbawamba, are the themes implicit in both sonics and composition; popular music’s sound and fury. While attempting to add a quiet, little-known indie pop duo to this lofty pantheon is perhaps beyond the range of any single article, what lies beneath the ostensibly childlike simplicity and diary-page lyrics of The Softies is a world well worth exploring.
If the “soft sadness” Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy sang of was ever personified by a single group or artist, it was The Softies. For a few blissful albums and assorted 7-inch vinyl singles, the K Records duo was the saddest, sweetest band in the world. But they were also more than that. As teary-eyed and twee as they appear at first glance, the songs of Rose Melberg and Jen Sbragia are full of layers and undertones: self-deprecating humor, heart-wrenchingly pure innocence, and even a resolute sense of independence. For every song of naïve wonder or astonished heartbreak is one of cold regret or surprisingly emphatic scorn: “What I did while I was gone / is none of your concern,” Melberg sings in “Charms Around Your Wrist,” as if she’s addressing one of her own betrayed narrators. It is this ability to sing from different, often opposing, perspectives that separates The Softies from the chorus of one-dimensional artists who have spent careers covering perhaps the oldest subject in the lyric book: love, and all of its innumerable permutations.
Between the intertwining of twin guitars and two voices lies albums’ worth of pointed relationship analysis, chronicling everything from unrequited longing to the overwhelming joy of first love to the painful aftermath. The Softies describe love with both snide wit and aching passion, using a pristine, unadorned style that remains wholly their own — one which, in the more than half-decade since what appears to have been their final release, still remains unsurpassed in its simple beauty.
Rose Melberg and Jen Sbragia met as so many musicians, especially those of the indie pop variety, do: at each other’s show. For a more exhaustive look at the twee/indie pop movement of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, you can refer to the encyclopedic Twee.net
No band really gels right away, of course, and establishing their sound took a few attempts. They recorded the four-song Love Seat 7-inch single for Slumberland Records in 1994, following it the next year with the Calvin Johnson-produced He’ll Never Have To Know single and the debut album It’s Love, both released on the venerable K Records — Washington state’s indie pop answer to Washington, D.C.‘s DIY punk label Dischord Records. In 1996, Slumberland released a self-titled eight-song EP that sprang from a two-day recording session in Olympia that predated It’s Love, and the contrast and development between the earlier and later recordings is clear.
The most evident progression on each consecutive release is the clarity of recording. Despite the pervading aesthetic of lo-fi, made almost unavoidable by the financial constraints and recording methods of twee pop’s do-it-yourself ethos, with each successive release, The Softies stripped away the layers and brought the bare essence of its songs closer to the listener’s ears. The Love Seat single was jangly almost to the point of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s fuzz guitars, but He’ll Never Have to Know found the duo honing its focus and forming the mold for the rest of the band’s discography. The Softies used two distortionless electric guitars – one rhythm and one lead – and two voices, one melody (primarily Melberg) and one harmonizing or playing counterpoint to the lead lines. Throughout their career, the band practically never used a rhythm section, much less studio overdubs, waiting until their final album for the careful incorporation of other select instruments. These songs were never stripped down or distilled from larger arrangements, nor can they be truly considered minimalist; this is music simply intended to be as rich and full as two singer/guitarists could create on their own.
The Softies really hit their stride on K, releasing three remarkably consistent full-length albums — all with 14 tracks, with lengths falling between 36 and 39 minutes — over a period of five years. From the beginning, the duo had a lot to say, but decided they didn’t need a lot of room to say it. The 1:32 title track of It’s Love is followed by “Alaska,” which clocks in at a scant 2:26. “Alaska” demonstrates the pair’s economic songwriting — the bridge, arriving after the second chorus, lasts barely ten seconds. Yet, with just a few quick chord changes and a single statement, the song has been turned on its ear. The Sbragia-sung “Heart Condition” neatly tucks Melberg’s harmonies into its pocket, giving Sbragia an up-tempo opportunity to take the center stage. Melberg, the duo’s sweeter vocalist, sings lead on most of The Softies’ catalog, allowing the occasional inclusion of her counterpart’s tart singing and more direct chord progressions to provide a lively emotional range.
Beyond their increasing abilities with a studio palette, The Softies toured the U.S. several times, once with a young Elliott Smith as the opening act. One concert bootleg is known to exist, a fan’s recording of a March 1996 show that was originally intended just to document Smith’s performance earlier that evening. “I hope that the sound’s ok, ‘cause we’re kind of, um, taking a chance,” Melberg tells the audience before beginning a confident rendition of “Charms Around Your Wrist.” “Would it be ok if I turned my guitar up?” she questions afterward, as if she has to ask. The audience is supportive and reasonably quiet through a set of early work and the rare “My Heaven, My Sky,” (“I like that one, it’s awesome!” one fan whispers afterward) which wound up on Melberg’s 1998 solo album Portola. The highlight of the night comes from Smith’s set, when Melberg joins him on a sublime “The Biggest Lie.” At the time, Smith was a Portland neighbor to the duo, and it’s almost miraculous that a document exists of the two saddest voices of the Pacific Northwest twined in harmony.
While never too enamored with trite major-key jangling, The Softies’ later work utilizes airy chords and jazzy rhythms that Melberg’s soft soprano soars among effortlessly. As befitting their band name, neither singer ever raised her voice on a Softies song; Melberg especially seems to approach every lyric with the same slightly regretful emotional tone. The tracks of second album Winter Pageant are no exception: “Tracks and Tunnels” and “Excellent” — one chronicling a lonely ride away from a relationship’s demise and the other, a too-good-to-be-true ode to love — are as sonically differentiable as shades of pale blue. It is the subtle shifts and allusions to an underlying pain, a lyric here, a harmony there, which make these songs so resonant. The otherwise joyful “The Best Days,” for instance, has a melody that stays bittersweet thanks to its focus on a major 7th note. In the hands of The Softies, the discrete major 7th chord, with only one chromatic tone separating it from a major chord, becomes a jarring trademark of their songwriting.
Final album Holiday In Rhode Island was a satisfying apex of the band’s continued progression, making simple, though relatively drastic changes to their sound. Winter Pageant hinted at further development with a piano on its title track, but here the changes come to the forefront. The opening track “Sleep Away Your Troubles” fills out the rhythm section with an additional guitar — this time, an acoustic one — and Scalbria’s harmony is casually doubled across both speakers. “Me and the Bees” brings in a cool jazz piano, as well as the band’s only use of percussion. “Now it’s just me and the bees / In a cyclone of falling leaves,” Melberg sings, evoking a windy autumn afternoon that the placidity of the drums seem to belie. “Holiday in Rhode Island” brings the uneasiness of major 7th chords to the forefront to provide a similar contrast: “I’m so happy just to see you / you’re all I dream of, honey / now we can be together / for a few days, I am the only one.” The brief song seems happy, but the emotion and the “holiday” itself are fleeting. While the increased emphasis on arrangements helps to give the songs greater identity, the performances alone are striking enough. Within each one of these tracks, like much of The Softies’ work, is an emotional knot waiting to be untangled.
While both women have long since moved onto other worthy projects, musical and non-musical — Sbragia continues to record with the aptly-named All-Girl Summer Fun Band, and Melberg will return with a new album this April after spending the last five years with her family, raising her son — the heights of beauty and introspection the two reached as The Softies remains a career peak for them both. While the band’s work may not have made the widespread cultural impact or contained the genre innovations of a Radiohead or a Wilco, their songs contain levels of emotional depth and intimacy as timeless as truly heartfelt, well-crafted music can be. It has been said that music is universal, and while that statement so often hinges on ambiguous cultural contexts, if you’ve ever felt the rollercoaster of emotion that love always seems to inspire, The Softies could be the soundtrack to your most loneliest winter nights and happiest summer afternoons.