Styles: freak folk, percussion-heavy
Others: Beirut, AU, Devendra Banhart
Is it foolish or fearless to be green and excited and to sound that way? As bright as the sky on a sunny day and just as welcome, Soft Landing is the debut release from musician Paul Collins, longtime member of Beirut. Lacking the Balkan/French/otherwise European slant of Zach Condon’s music (but maintaining a good measure of its lolloping feverishness), Soft Landing instead makes its case through sheer energy. With clattering percussion, quirky keys, and crooning vocals, Collins (joined by friend Michael Lawless and Beirut’s Perrin Cloutier) offers up something that sounds like a debut, and enthusiastically incorporates all the positives and negatives therein.
“Live With Birds” is a 5/4 holler with crashing cymbals and group sings, a circus of sympathetic noises akin to those on Au’s Verbs. Before the others join, Collins’ soft voice barely rides above the instrumental backing, submerging itself into the auditory backdrop like many a noisier band’s vocalist would do. This is a marked difference from Beirut, a group that relies upon the charisma of its frontman. Soft Landing, instead, almost detracts actively from it — it’s not that Collins isn’t a fine singer, it’s that the singing isn’t the point. Likewise, “Awkward Flower” moves along noisily, percussion-driven and rollicking, complete with finger-picked acoustic guitar. The song is confessional and intimate, yet it’s also bolstered by brashness, similar to “Faith Center,” which features a discouragement-proof, shiny keyboard melody over a percussive, jamming backbone. It’s upbeat and unaffected, like that friend who remains optimistic even in the face of conclusive proof otherwise.
Unlike Au, however, Soft Landing doesn’t rely on virtuosity to make its case, for better or for worse. Many of the songs sound, dare I say, amateurish — I can’t shake the feeling that it’s precious how hopeful it all sounds, and it’s hard for me to decide whether that would encourage or discourage continued listening. Maybe it’s not so simple. A notable exception to the album’s relentless aural grin is the mellow “Pendleton Woolen,” in which Collins intones, “I wish I could control the beats of my heart.” The song is sweet and longing, honest yet solemnly bright, and betrays a depth not revealed in much of the rest of the record.
But the words are actually the album’s weakest attribute. “Papaya,” for example, sports a refrain that says, literally, “All I need’s a papaya”; it’s a little too cute for my taste. And closer “Ibiza” presents the record’s first example of verse awkwardness with “All I need in this darkness is you and I” over an almost dancefloor musical base. Fortunately, Collins doesn’t intend the lyrics to be the centerpiece of the album, and they’re not, with the listeners’ attention being irresistibly drawn to the songs’ instrumental whimsicality.
So Soft Landing, in the end, is unabashedly buoyant. Although it would benefit from a little more lyrical or instrumental weight, its very stubbornness proves impressive. Perhaps in future efforts, Soft Landing will learn how to wield more musical gravity, assuming that’s even something they want. For now, and considering the substantial touring Collins has done with Beirut, it’s admirable that he’s still so bright-eyed, so un-beat-down. There’s nothing resigned about Soft Landing. These songs are unpretentious, yes, but their creators are no fools.
02. Mic Check
03. Live with Birds
04. Faith Center
05. Pendleton Woolen
07. Awkward Flower