David Kilgour & the Heavy Eights

Left By Soft

Rating: 3.7/5.0

Label: Merge Records

If it weren’t for the surprising international success of New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a cappella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo, Flight of the Conchords, most American listeners would probably be surprised that such a thing as a Kiwi indie rock scene exists. Setting cultural chauvinism aside, New Zealand has had its own proud history of independent rock music, arguably most exemplified by Dunedin’s the Clean. Not unlike Scotland’s Jesus and Mary Chain, the band was formed by two brothers, achieved national popularity but only ever had a passing shot at international success and have proved themselves to be one of the groups other bands name-drop as a primary influence. Left By Soft, the new solo album by guitarist/co-founder David Kilgour is reminiscent of earlier output, but rarely sounds exhausted or played out.

Pavement, a pioneering alternative group themselves, are directly influenced by the Clean’s influence on their trademark fuzzy, jagged sound and it’s not hard to hear that on Left By Soft. But perhaps time has mellowed Kilgour somewhat; it’s not an abrasive album for all the buzzing guitars and the occasionally sinister hooks, leaning towards a contemplative, autumnal sound at times. Though it’s been four years since his last solo album (2007’s The Far Now), nothing on the album sounds like the work of a man creatively slowing down. In fact, it’s a sharply conceived batch of hook-filled, jangly near-pop songs.

Taking an interesting tactic by leading with the instrumental title track, Left By Soft instantly sounds propulsive and catchy. The drums are relatively sedate but commanding, the bass line is deliberate yet not overwhelming and every time you think you’ve heard the primary guitar lick, Kilgour steps in with another stinging fill. “A Break in the Weather” sounds almost cheerful in contrast, a near-jaunty acoustic accompanied by spacey electric guitars and Kilgour’s deadpan voice intoning lyrics such as, “I really do hope/ This weather keeps up/ You’re like the weather.” It sounds both whimsically juvenile and hopeful, but with just enough of a sarcastic edge to make you wonder. Similarly, the equally pastoral “Pop Song” makes you debate the self-analytical (“Did you swallow a bucket of words/ Oh, I’ll write you a pop song/ One day“) while still enjoying the moody spareness of the track. The undoubted highlight of the album “Diamond Mine” is as strong as anything Kilgour’s ever written, a gloriously wistful combination of jangle and bright guitars. It’s an amazing track that would justify the album’s existence just by itself, sounding like a lost combination of the pop craftwork of Echo & the Bunnymen and J&MC. Unfortunately, two excursions into country, “I’ll Climb Back Up That Hill” and “Steel Arrow” don’t come off quite as well, slogging down in tired, too-similar guitar lines that make the Rolling Stones’ “Broken Flowers” sound like a paragon of Nashville purity in contrast.

Left By Soft is a solid record by a veteran songwriter, a musician who has never gotten and sadly will probably never get his due in this hemisphere. Although describing an album as the work of a professional can conjure up thoughts of over-slickness or tunes grudgingly pumped out per contract, Kilgour never sounds that way here. He’s simply a musician still doing what he does best: making songs.

by Nathan Kamal

Key Tracks: Diamond Mine

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