Rachel Goswell and Steve Clarke’s voices often meld together beautifully. But sometimes they try to do too much with too little.
The Soft Cavalry’s self-titled debut comes in three moods, its time spent in the clouds, drilled into the ground or on the wind. Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell and Steve Clarke strive to discover and play with sounds both new and familiar, their voices often melding together beautifully. But sometimes they try to do too much with too little.
The album starts off strong with “Dive,” evoking the serene landscape of lying on the beach and letting the ebb and flow of the waves wash over you. But every song does not float so freely; “Bulletproof” follows with a fantastic, off-kilter percussion pattern and elevated, echoing guitars. “There’s a hole in my heart/ I’m not bulletproof,” Goswell and Clarke sing together in a superb earworm-worthy chorus. Just as it starts to fade the track roars back with a needle guitar solo. It’s the best song here and worth the existence of this project by itself.
On the more ambient, spacey side are tracks like “Passerby” and “Careless Sun.” On the former, astral vocals are buoyed by a xylophone melody that bubbles to the surface. It stays locked into this lovely dream state, with the sound taking up every molecule of space. The latter moves from a slow, solitary piano to the type of masterful synth-laden burst that The Cure or New Order do best. Closing track “The Ever Turning Wheel” takes this slow build to a glorious extreme, unfurling synths, strings and other layers of noise until it can’t fit anything more. Despite the business, every instrument and note still rings through clearly, the audible equivalent of an enclosed laser show where your senses are stimulated no matter where you look.
Not every song feels the need to achieve exit velocity. Some of the best tracks are centered around laid-back acoustic guitar melodies. “Never Be Without You” is a summer anthem from an alternate universe where sunsets are always hazy. Guitars are masked and warped just enough to keep your ears perked. “The Light That Shines On Everyone” starts off stripped back, with just gentle guitar chords. But the touches of atmospheric synths and strings really work here, like a breeze that picks up occasionally. “Home” tries something similar with its slow-and-steady clean guitar work, but it’s too bland to hang onto. It’s a shame, because when that second half hits with an electro-blues fuzz, it’s one of the record’s best segments.
When The Soft Cavalry want to return to Earth, the results are more mixed, with good ideas that fail to evolve. “Spiders” has a sinister feel thanks to a simple piano melody pushed up against deep guitar scratches. But then it doesn’t go anywhere. It turns a cool intro into an entire, five-minute song. “Only In Dreams” has the same problem. The track would’ve made for a good interlude, but it keeps plunking the same piano chords and repeating the same vocal melody for its entire length, to diminishing returns. The small amount of flute that’s included doesn’t save the song from being a drag. The artists achieve better results on “The Velvet Fog,” the closest thing here to a direct rock song, with a clean guitar pattern, synths rising like trumpets and touches of falsetto in an ascendant chorus. When you think it couldn’t rise higher, the guitar tone shifts and shoots through the stratosphere.
Side projects sometimes offer the best opportunities for artists. They’re freed from expectations, free to try new sounds, free to unexpectedly succeed and fail. The Soft Cavalry does all of this and more. Their debut is uneven, but it’s a worthwhile collaboration for both musicians to expand their horizons, throw something against the wall and see if it sticks.