Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Album: Soft Black - The Earth Is Black

The Earth Is Black
Album: The Earth Is Black (and Other Apocalyptic Lullabies for Children)
Plays With Dolls Records, 2009
Rating: ******* (7/10)

After my tepid live review of Soft Black last fall, frontman/songwriter Vincent Cacchione made the arrogant - or ballsy - move of asking for my opinion on his 2009 record, The Earth Is Black (released today). Arrogant in that he seemed to think he could win me over, but ballsy to ask for an (inevitably public) opinion from someone he knows won't hold back harsh words.

Given this history, I wish I could come down strongly one way or the other on this album, but unfortunately, my reaction was a bit mixed. I can say definitively, though, that I did find it much more satisfying than the November show - as an album, it makes clear what Cacchione is trying accomplish in his music and ultimately, it succeeds in its mission.

A cohesive record, The Earth Is Black is immediately reminiscent of country-rock classics like Neil Young. But there's something more beneath the surface, a hint of Young's more edgy contemporaries - the Stooges and even the Doors are lurking in the background here. I suppose there are also pieces of psychedelia (think Grateful Dead) but that seems more deliberate and less integral to the album's ultimate vision than the touches of garage rock and under-the-radar pop.

The album boasts masterful songwriting throughout, with title track standing as the most memorable example. The sonic experimentation of "The Flesh Of The Sky" is also a highlight - it is definitively post-punk, but somehow fits smoothly with album's overarching late-60's attitude. The second half of the album can also hold its own. "The Lions" is a notably pretty little number, while "Did You Put A Spell On Me?" rocks hard as it branches out in new noisy directions.

However, some tracks fall short of that mark. "I Am An Animal" is the most disappointing example - this clearly should have been an album highlight. Instead, the sparse arrangement in the verse makes the song a glaring weak point. In pitch and tone, Cacchione is a fine singer, but his voice simply isn't rich enough to carry the song. The songwriting is still solid, and the arrangement is a good idea in concept, but the execution only highlights Soft Black's amateur side.

Thankfully, that side is well hidden for most of the rest of the album. Despite some weak moments, The Earth Is Black is a mature and accomplished record. I don't think Soft Black has peaked yet - the album's shortcomings reveal problems that a musician as talented and eager to improve as Cacchione will be able to fix with time.

Stylistically, Soft Black may not be for everyone. But if you've always wondered what it would sound like if Neil Young or James Taylor had joined a garage rock band from Cleveland in 1972, grab a copy now!


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