the softies

Showing 10 posts tagged the softies

Hello Rain

The Pacific Northwest indie-pop scene that birthed the Softies was and is nothing if not close-knit, but even by K Records standards, Rose Melberg and Jen Sbragia’s resumes run long. Before we examine the duo’s considerable catalog this week, let’s get some context. Both women have made vital, enthusiastic D.I.Y. music with some half-dozen other bands over the last two decades, with several of those acts perhaps better known than the Softies — a thorough look at all of them would take the rest of the month, so I’ll keep this brief.

Rose Melberg’s first major band was Tiger Trap, a Sacramento indie-pop quartet formed by high school friends Melberg, Angela Loy, Heather Dunn and Jen Braun. Their 1993 self-titled debut helped set the mold for U.S. twee: guitars exploding with treble; earnest, vibrato-free vocal melodies; and sloppy percussion played as fast as the drummer could handle, all recorded in the pre-Pro Tools glory days of analog lo-fi. (A budget necessity then, not an aesthetic choice, though few would argue it didn’t contribute to the music’s heady enthusiasm.) Even a few moments into album opener “Puzzle Pieces,” Melberg’s sweet, clear voice arrives fully formed and completely striking; with the democratic impulse that has characterized each of her projects, she shared vocal and songwriting duties with Loy on the band’s noisy tracks. The band found a home on K, the Olympia, Wash., label co-founded by scene leader Calvin Johnson.

"I was just so into music as a teen. Just obsessed with records and going to shows and sneaking in, having the fake ID not even to drink but to get into bars to go see bands," Melberg told me in a 2006 interview for Cokemachineglow. “So it was really more of this idea of my friend Angela and I, it was like, ‘We have to be in a band.’ And we didn’t really have idea of what we would actually do or what we would actually play.”

Tiger Trap burned bright and died young, splitting after a Dec. 1993 show — just a year after their formation. A little more polish and a touch more broody grunge influence and they might’ve been Letters to Cleo, whose 1993 hit “Here and Now” doesn’t sound so far removed (if less fun) from “Supercrush” all these years later. Instead, Tiger Trap left a legacy of underground influence, one classic album and a handful of surrounding singles.

The Softies would form shortly thereafter, but Melberg didn’t lose her taste for playing fast and loud: from 1994-1996, she, Paul Curran and Amy Linton would release a trio of EPs as Go Sailor, a group with slightly smoother recordings and a deft rhythm section that gave Melberg — who handled more of the vocal duties this time — the freedom to write blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bridges on songs such as “Together Forever In Love.” The band’s tracks were gathered on their lone album-length release, 1996’s Go Sailor, a collection generally as worthwhile (read: essential) as Tiger Trap’s.

Jen Sbragia would pursue a similar sound with the aptly named All-Girl Summer Fun Band, which formed in summer 1998, between future Softies releases. Like Tiger Trap before them, the band was an all-girl quartet, singing goofy, energetic songs centered on charming melodies and simple chords. K released the group’s self-titled debut in 2002 and sophomore set 2, which features an homage to actor Jason Lee titled, yes, “Jason Lee,” the following year.

Each of these bands offers its own rewards, but their common threads are giddy energy and brief catalogs — both qualities the rhythm section-less, comparatively long-lived Softies would impressively subvert. As well-versed as both Melberg and Sbragia are in the fast-paced, twee-as-fuck music that defined the indie-pop era, the Softies would find them pursuing a greater accomplishment: playing quiet as fuck.

(Bonus: this wonderful photo of Tiger Trap jamming in 1993.)


He'll Never Have To Know


The Softies


He'll Never Have To Know 7''

The Softies were born out of the ashes of Tiger Trap: Jen Sbragia, a Portland native, was a fan of the band who struck up a friendship with Rose Melberg.

"Coming out of the Tiger Trap experience which was a lot of stress and a lot of difficult relationships … the greatest thing about the Softies was my relationship with Jen. Our friendship evolved as our music evolved," Melberg said in 2006. "We played music together basically the first or second time we ever hung out."

The two wound up being roommates for a year in Portland, where they spent their free time writing, rehearsing and developing a defiantly gentle aesthetic.

"That’s like, how I learned to play guitar and how I learned to write harmonies, just by doing," Melberg said, crediting Sbragia — who, it bears remembering, hadn’t just spent a year co-fronting a seminal indie-pop band — as the member with "skill."

"I am not a proficient musician at all. I play very little of each instrument that I own," she said. "I take the three notes that know or the three chords that I know and I just sort of use that to the fullest that I can."

Humility aside, the Softies would use more than three chords on their deceptively spare songs. With a few notable exceptions (which I promise to note!), the duo’s sound was strict: two distortion-free electric guitars, two voices, a touch of reverb. Aside from the occasional overdubbed vocal, that was it. On most songs, Melberg would strum and sing lead as Sbragia harmonized or called out wordless counter-melodies while playing downcast guitar melodies over Melberg’s chords; occasionally, the two reversed roles. (“I’m not too inspired,” Sbragia told CMJ New Music Monthly in 1996. “Someone has to really hurt me before I’ll write about it.”)

Acoustic guitars likely never occurred to the duo. Instead, they played matching pink Fender Duo-Sonics. The Softies were not to be a folk project or a singer-songwriter affair: they were an indie-pop band, and proud of it. Though their music was about to expand the definition of what twee-pop could be, audiences weren’t necessarily ready for music that required a more patient ear.

"I thought, I hate this, I hate playing on rock stages, no one understands," Melberg told CMJ of a badly received UCLA performance on a mid-’90s tour, taking heart in a better all-ages show that followed. The rare mainstream review would compare them to jangly “cuddlecore” (the chillwave of 1997) acts such as Heavenly — bands that more obviously resembled Tiger Trap or Go Sailor, if they weren’t borrowing directly from them. For better or worse, the Softies were on their own. (That review, by the way, was part of a two-album essay — remember those? — that also covered Elliott Smith’s Either/Or! Both got 7/10s. I give them both 10s. But it got one thing right: “Rose Melberg and Jen Sbragia make music for indoor introverts—solitary souls who still write letters.” More on Smith and the Softies’ parallels in real life, and my heart, to come.)

But let’s get to the songs. The Softies’ debut release on the ever-supportive K was 1995’s “He Will Never Have to Know” 7”. Calvin Johnson himself recorded the songs at Dub Narcotic Studios, and if the tape hiss is a little rough, the music is remarkable. “He Will Never Have To Know” is a huge stylistic leap from Melberg’s previous material, instantly establishing the band’s trademark style and showcasing melodic tricks that would remain Softies standbys. It’s a jazz cliche to say it’s not the notes you play, but the ones you don’t: in this case, it’s a pregnant pause, appearing toward the end of the line, “Just one last thing now to un—pack.” The pause gives the song a moment of sudden poignance, a chance to take in the heartbreak. It helps that Melberg follows with a lovely descending melodic triplet as Sbragia enters, in a higher register, with a similar phrase. There’s another one inserted deftly into the quietly crushing chorus: “If he never calls her then she’ll never have to — know-oh-oh.” Musically, the emotional tragedy breezes by with all the ferocity of a kite idling in the wind, but the knife twists nevertheless.

The band had also recognized the power of major 7ths, a chord common in bossa nova and the songs of Burt Bacharach. (And America’s yacht-rock classics “Tin Man” and “Ventura Highway.”) Rather than offer the gritty, bluesy sound of its cousin the dominant 7th, the major version offers a gentleness, a certain unfinished quality that doesn’t demand resolution. It lends itself well to melancholy and balladry and opens considerable harmonic possibilities; in the Softies’ hands, it sounds like Arthur lifting the sword from the stone.

This all happens, of course, in the song’s first 42 seconds — not bad for a single. The magic of the Softies’ writing, Melberg’s in particular, lies in their mastery of understatement. While some artists sing about love and relationships with the florid language of fireworks, eternity, heaven, etc., the Softies hide the depth of their feelings behind half-smiles and meaningful glances. The lyrics go hand in hand with the music, which rarely offers an obvious emotional tone when an ambiguous one’s available. You won’t find “He Will Never Have to Know” in the dictionary under “Subtlety,” but someone should really put a footnote on the Wikipedia page.

The rest of the EP unrolls with further charm: “Nothing Sincerely” floats on airy harmonies, “C.K.M.” nearly bursts with unrequited feeling (“If you’d been watching the things I do/You might have noticed that I loved you,” a line placed crucially in past tense) and the Sbragia-sung “Lambretta Boy” opines over a too-young love interest with a scooter and a taste for the Who. (Years later, it received a sequel, or at least a reboot, in Standard Fare’s “Fifteen.”) There’s humor there, though you have to keep an eye out for it.

Before we go any further, one thing should be clear: the Softies spoke volumes in a whisper. On any level, their music is gorgeous and tuneful, but the full power of the songs requires both attention and a heart that gets a little weepy under the influence of the right love song.

"He Will Never Have To Know" was preceded by the four-track "Loveseat" 7", released by Slumberland in the summer of 1994. The recording is scratchy and treble-heavy to the point of discomfort, with both women’s vocals buried in a muddy mix; the songwriting feels embryonic compared to the triumphant identity of the next single. It sounds like the bridge between Tiger Trap and the Softies, but the destination would be more rewarding. It’s a prime candidate for a remaster, if Slumberland’s current success ever urges the label to turn its attentions to the archives.

Full disclosure: My MP3s, downloaded in the pre-digital store era, are probably from a first-generation vinyl rip. My copy of “He Will Never Have To Know” has actual skips, as you’ll hear above. The four tracks can be had from K for $.99, which I hope you’ll join me in purchasing now.

The Softies wore their intentions on their sleeves with It’s Love, their 1995 full-length debut — though actually, the album’s recording followed the sessions for their self-titled 10” release, which would come out on Slumberland six months later. I’ve always considered The Softies less essential than the inspired second EP or the finely tuned act that would emerge on It’s Love, though the band’s not completely to blame. The midrange on “Snow Like This” and many of the tracks that follow is turned to 11, leaving the songs to stare up from the bottom of a rippling pool. That treble-y indie-pop edge is sanded down; the clarity of the harmonies is lost.

MP3: The Softies - “Selfish”

The band recorded the s/t’s eight tracks in a brisk two days. I feel like I’ve read about troubles with the sessions or a necessitated re-recording of the songs, which Google is no help for today and I might be making up. The songs themselves are fine, of course — “Postal Blue,” one of Sbragia’s best, is a tender, clever lament that finds its singer’s love returned to sender. I’d analyze further, but the band’s albums to come have a head-start of several hundred listens, so let’s leave it until tomorrow, when we’ll discuss It’s Love and Winter Pageant and your blogger will exhaust the thesaurus entry for “amazing.”

You and Only You

We’re about to get into Favorite Albums of All Time territory for me here, so an overview of my Softies fandom may help contextualize the inevitable gushing. Recently, I told the story of the first time I heard the band to the Vancouver Observer for the paper’s Rose Melberg appreciation:

I first heard Rose Melberg totally by chance. iTunes had just been released for PCs, a big deal in 2003, and my message board at the time was geeking out about it. Someone pointed us toward an indie-pop radio station iTunes was streaming at the precise moment the Softies’ “Charms Around Your Wrist” started playing. I’d never heard anything like it. Jen Sbragia’s lead guitar was as gentle and graceful as a kitten tip-toeing over its sleeping owner, while Rose Melberg’s voice — confident but vulnerable and colored with an impossibly subtle range of emotions — was Rose Melberg’s voice. I was in love within seconds. I spent the rest of college falling asleep to It’s Love and never looked back.

I spent equal hours with the band’s Holiday in Rhode Island. Those were the albums I was able to track down. You’ll have to remember, in 2003 — the prehistoric Before Arcade Fire era — albums could actually be obscure. Online mail-order was a thing designed for mature credit card owners, not college freshmen, if it existed at all. I had no car or reasonable means of getting to Amoeba to track them down in person. And as for illegal methods, it wasn’t necessarily easier. It took weeks for me to find downloads of It’s Love and Holiday in Rhode Island; I checked Soulseek fruitlessly for months before finding a copy of the oddly rare Winter Pageant. I wonder sometimes if those It’s Love/Holiday people are still out there, not realizing they’re missing one.

Once in hand, I clung tightly to these records. I’ve never really let them go. In high school, I listened to the standard ill-advised range of radio cock-rock and dutifully purchased CDs by blink-182 and Incubus. (To my credit, I skipped Limp Bizkit, though I can’t say I ever turned their songs off during Total Request Live). It was virtually impossible to be a teenage boy in the late ’90s and not own these albums out of sheer social survival instinct. But I’d always naturally had a taste for kinder, gentler material — I bought the Batman Forever soundtrack on cassette for Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” — and picking up Radiohead’s The Bends midway through high school flipped the switch that made fitting in any longer impossible.

In short order, I discovered the Internet, piracy, indie rock, message boards, and other seemingly endless brave new worlds. The Elliott Smith catalog changed my life. I came to school every day electrified with new discoveries, miraculously struggling through my junior year with grades intact and a full-scale course in Indie 101 under my belt. I was insufferable enough about this for people I’d never talked to outside of class to IM me when Elliott Smith died as if I’d lost a family member. (Facebook was still a few months away. I know! The dark ages!)

I can’t regret my enthusiasm. (It brought me here, after all.) But my inflexible outsider status only drove me deeper into the music, and like Smith before them, Christ, did I dive deep into the Softies. I did, indeed, fall asleep to their albums almost every night for years. Most nights, if I can put on my headphones and thumb the iPod without waking my fiancée, I still do. For all of the reasons we’re discussing this week, their catalog spoke to me like no other artist had before but Smith. Mostly, it made a shy, bookish kid feel less alone.


I interviewed Melberg in college for Cokemachineglow. Judging by the unedited transcript, I was a good enough baby-journalist to get through it without embarrassing myself, though the thought of playing the recording again makes my heart race. She was generous with her time and warm and opened-armed with her responses. I was as relieved as I was excited: after all, she could’ve been a jerk, however improbable that sounds, and soured hundreds of hours of listening. A silly, unfair neurosis, but, for a fan, a real one.

Before that, I wrote a retrospective on the band for Cokemachineglow, the only such piece I undertook during my tenure at the webzine. What you’re reading this week is a broader, hopefully more eloquent expansion of that essay. It’s taken on a bit of a life of its own — the Softies’ Wikipedia page links to it — and it earned the attention of the aforementioned Vancouver Observer’s reporter. #Humblebrag, right?

I got to see Melberg live in 2009, as she played a pair of quietly promoted, ridiculously intimate shows in L.A. for the first time since the Softies’ unfortunate 1995 gig. She played two magical sets in the span of a few hours and in between, I introduced myself and bought her new album. She knew who I was, or appeared to, and was kind enough not to mention the small critiques that had made their way into my recent review of said record. It remains the most laboriously fair piece I’ve ever written; how do you acknowledge your heroes as less than perfect? It would’ve been easier to write a review of my parents. (Reading it now, I can’t believe it’s six years old. I also can’t believe it reads pretty well. Cheers, college Dave.)  


This is the part where I tell you Rose and I are Facebook friends. I am going to post these articles on Facebook. It is going to be a little awkward for everybody. I’m trying to imagine Lester Bangs tweeting at Lou Reed from heaven, but I can’t quite picture it.


Charms Around Your Wrist


The Softies


It's Love

By the 1995 release of It’s Love, the Softies had recorded 16 songs spread over three slabs of vinyl — a period of trial and error that concluded with the masterful new album. Production-wise, the band finally struck a balance between soggy midrange and dry-heaving treble, developing a clean, clear sound with just enough bite. The pair’s guitars are panned wider, leaving Sbragia’s lead lines to linger as a third voice as the duo’s human vocals take center stage. With no drums or bass to intrude, songs such as “Hello Rain” and “Until You Tell” are pure melody and harmony, as soft and comforting as a cashmere blanket.

Because the Softies’ aesthetic was so purposefully simple, even these basic changes have a serious impact. The evolved sound added a touch of reverb-aided distance to the band’s recordings, emphasizing the wistful qualities of even their happiest songs. In “Hello Rain,” as Sbragia sings a wordless melody parallel to Melberg, the remove is palpable: even together, the two singers are alone, never quite able to reach out to each other.

The ability to create the sense of solitude in what was very much a team effort was only part of the emotional range of the band’s disarming songs. Melberg’s voice, an incredibly communicative instrument, makes its feelings known through subtle shifts, shades of grey that cloak greater depths. It takes a song as blunt as “It’s Love,” the album’s title track, to let the sun pour in — but even then, the lyrics seem wary. “There’s no reason we can’t call it what it is,” Melberg sings triumphantly, but that line’s very existence seems to indicate a handful of pros and cons pondered and worried over. “Charms Around Your Wrist,” a sharp kiss-off to a fanzine editor, according to one account, is so lovely that you could go hours without realizing it’s as certain a diss track as any Jay-Z banger. The consistent sonic aesthetic allows for the songs’ narratives to come as surprises, their emotional implications as rewarding with patience as the songs are immediately accessible.

The album’s cover was drawn by artist Adrian Tomine, who gave the band’s image a ’50s malt-shop innocence. That implied naiveté was another source of subversion: as devoted as the songs are to the chaste romance of unrequited love, they also come equipped with the cynical wisdom of the ’90s, which knew feelings left unsaid too often end in tears. “Until You Tell” captures this perfectly, tracing the collapse of a relationship with painful self-flagellation (“Oh silly me/I thought you were the one”) yet unable to let go, “Until you tell.” The Softies’ music was never melodramatic — far too shy for that — another opposition to their vintage roots. But the emphasis on relationships is no less intense for it, leaving even a song about friendship — “I Love You More,” which narrates the loss of a companion to the attentions of a new lover — open to romantic interpretation. They were too polite to scream them in your ears, but the Softies had no shortage of feelings to share.

It’s difficult to discuss It’s Love without excessive use of the word “lovely”: if two guitars have ever sounded finer together than the instrumental “This House,” I’d prefer not to know about it. Throughout the album, there are a handful of minor edits — the lead and rhythm guitars sometimes switch speakers, as do Sbragia’s harmonies; occasionally a rhythm guitar sounds especially jangly, as on “Could I”; but otherwise, the first 13 tracks pass without particularly noticeable alterations to the Softies aesthetic. The only major addition comes on closing track “Perfect Afternoon,” which leaves careful piano notes to shimmer from stage left. Like everything the Softies did, it won’t make you stand up and take notice — but it’s all the more special for it.

Though the ostensible differences between Elliott Smith and the Softies are broad ones, their similarities are striking. Both Smith and the Softies lived in Portland for a time in the mid-’90s, with Smith playing with post-Fugazi rock act Heatmiser and beginning to release his haunting, intricate solo albums. Like Melberg after Tiger Trap, Smith took refuge in a quieter, more tender sound on albums such as Roman Candle and Elliott Smith, though his inspiration drew from the angst of Big Star and John Lennon’s solo work rather than the candy-coated love songs the Softies inverted. As lyricists, though, Smith and Melberg were certainly colleagues: both write ambiguous, open-ended songs about relationships shrouded by cloudy mystery. Smith’s couplets, too, avoided highbrow diction or flowery verse in favor of deceptively direct language and powerful metaphors. And both songwriters’ works seem to carry an inescapable air of sadness that, at its brightest, shifts to a sort of wounded optimism. That’s not to limit their artistry — just to recognize their perspectives.

They also happen to be my all-time favorite musicians. For years, I didn’t realize any connection existed between the two; I was shocked to learn they’d toured together in 1995 and 1996, with Smith still a few years removed from the Oscar fame that would prod him into the public consciousness. Ben Nugent’s hasty Smith bio, Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing, described the tour briefly, noting that Smith may have been on “amazing pain killers” — an account disputed by Melberg when we spoke in 2006. She had fond memories of the late musician; on the tour, she took to singing harmonies on Smith’s “The Biggest Lie” during his set. You can imagine the rush of emotions I felt when I found a YouTube video capturing possibly the Pacific Northwest underground scene’s two most quietly devastating singers on the same stage, their voices intertwined. In an alternate universe, the two made a duets album that sold 17 million copies.

Smith is the only artist I’ve written more extensively on than the Softies — his Roman Candle and Winter Pageant wrestle weekly for my all-time favorite album spot. You can find those archives on Rawkblog.


Pack Your Things And Go


The Softies


Winter Pageant

Before 1997’s Winter Pageant, the Softies had done a major national tour, playing several dozen dates with Elliott Smith. The result, perhaps, was a crisper sound that brought just the hint of treble-driven aggression. And Winter Pageant is a darker record than its predecessor. Look at the song titles: “Pack Your Things And Go,” “So Sad,” “Over,” “No One At All” — the opening tracks might as well be a Dashboard Confessional EP.

But as always, the band cushions the blows for us. “Pack Your Things and Go” sparkles with mallet percussion (a first) and smiling major-key harmonies — that the chorus goes, “Just when I need you/you pack your things and go,” is the sort of contrast that was now the band’s signature. But the album also offers “Excellent,” one of the group’s sweetest love songs: “You say that nothing is better than this/I feel the same and let you know with each kiss/and I love you,” Melberg sings, with the music and lyrical mood aligning in a Softies moment as rare as a solar eclipse. Yet the emotional color never reaches complete brightness: listen to Melberg’s voice, the way she quivers and hesitates. She wants to believe. Perhaps she does. But something still nags.

She addresses this in the next song, “My Foolish Way”: “I’ll never never/ever ever again/disbelieve when/you say, you love my foolish way.” The music is apologetic. It’s like the scene at the end of the romantic comedy, with the big speech delivered and the two leads on the verge of devouring each other’s faces. They get there in the next track, “The Best Days,” but the music still carries an undercurrent of sadness, knowing the best days aren’t meant to last. The Softies never take their love for granted.

It’s these emotional layers that makes these songs so endlessly meaningful; there’s never a time when Winter Pageant won’t launch fresh feelings. It’s become my favorite Softies album over the years: track-for-track, it’s more consistent than It’s Love, and not as frostily broken-hearted as Holiday In Rhode Island would be, but to compare the trio is like looking for flaws in a row of Tiffany’s diamonds. Of all the band’s albums, Winter Pageant comes closest to offering a single conceptual arc: the death of a love affair, the birth of a new one, and the sad end it can’t help but reach, with someone “still wearing my ring/I stopped wearing yours.” Your interpretations may vary, and there’s evidence that the songs are about several different people rather than one or two subjects. The shift from “Tracks and Tunnels” to “Excellent,” for one, is likely too broad an emotional swing to make them directly connected. But this is part of the beauty of the Softies, from whose music you can take what you may.

Before we go, press play on “Pack Your Things and Go” again. Put your headphones on. Listen to Rose and Jen singing the hell out of that (exquisitely soft, 800 thread count) hook. Right?! You should probably queue up the rest.


Holiday In Rhode Island


The Softies


Holiday In Rhode Island

Holiday in Rhode Island, the Softies’ final album, arrived three years after Winter Pageant. It sounds like a good-bye. The warm, trebly sound the band embraced on their early work is much chillier here. It gives the album a unique beauty — it might be their most admirably lovely — but it also delivers a level of blue sadness previously unreached in their catalog.

The climate had changed: the Pacific Northwest twee scene and its accompanying fanzine culture had begun to wear itself out. The underground’s attention had begun to shift to websites like Pitchfork and complex studio creations such as Kid A and even the Microphones’ 2001 release The Glow, Pt. 2, a K Records effort that might as well been flown in by Martians compared to the label’s early catalog. Recording technology, too, had evolved: I’m not familiar with the particulars of the Holiday in Rhode Island sessions but its cool clarity has the feel of digital.

While Winter Pageant presented the imagery of distance in songs such as “Tracks and Tunnels,” “Sleep Away Your Troubles” opens Holiday in Rhode Island with much darker escapes:

If I beg you, will you smother me?
Just to put me out of my constant misery
This is too much for me to bear
You’d know this too if you ever had been there
I hope you have sweet dreams

And I hope you never leave me

The next verse is less clear:

I wander through these empty halls
As the moon casts shadows of just me upon the walls
My time wasted in endless regret
While you sleep away your troubles and forget

This would seem to position Melberg in a dream herself, or a nightmare, while a lover lies beside her untouched by worry. The first verse then becomes an urge to escape another night of tossing and turning — “if you ever had been there,” to the dream itself. (On 2006 solo album Cast Away the Clouds, Melberg would sing of struggling through insomnia to meet with a dream lover in “Each New Day.” It’s practically perky, a complete shift in mood.) As we’ve noted, previous Softies songs let their anxiety simmer beneath the surface; this brings it into the open.

"The Places We Go" offers a patient pace and a return to the feel of hope against pragmatism that the band does so well. This time, Melberg looks inward, at her own heart’s misbehavior. For all their songs of pining after lovers, the Softies never let themselves be victims to a partner: "I’m still just me/nothing less or more," Melberg sings in "These Sad Times." That’s not to say it’s not a record that doesn’t feel sorry for itself. "Just a Day" is particularly brutal: "I wish I could draw a line/through all of 1999/all except that moment in the spring/when I had everything." It’s balanced by the lovely shock of a finger-picked acoustic guitar — it’s the first-ever Softies folk song. If anything, the lyrics take too much blame onto their narrators, and some anger might be a healthy emotion amidst the album’s placid acceptance. But the Softies’ still waters run deep, and the grief, as ever, is softened by music’s sheer beauty.

Holiday in Rhode Island offers the strict band’s most ambitious arrangements, a relative term: a acoustic guitar makes its first Softies appearance on “Sleep Away Your Troubles,” while the lonely cymbal and snare hits of “Me and the Bees” are on twee par with Dylan going electric. (Literature on the subject is lacking, but by 2000, the crankiest of the scene kids were likely too busy applying to grad school to make a fuss.) Mallet percussion (a vibraphone?) makes a return in the album’s title track, arguably the prettiest song in the band’s catalog. A handful of major chords in the chorus gives genuine resolution to the major 7ths that flesh out the verses, even if the lyrics come with one of the band’s signature caveats: “For a few days, I am the only one.” Even on vacation, enjoying the fullness of a happy moment is out of the question.

One might peg this album, and much of the band’s discography, as music for depression, blue-shaded glasses one wouldn’t want to see the world through. But as anyone might admit in their heart of hearts, moments of true happiness, that sensation that makes your heart expand and your smile stretch to the ends of your face, are rare. The songs of the Softies are not without them. And even at their moodiest, the duo never asks the listener to feel bad for them.

The Softies’ albums tend to sequence their brighter moments together, and here that run comes starting with “Favorite Shade of Blue,” a knowingly downcast track that leads into “You and Only You” — in the running for their sweetest song alongside “Excellent,” “The Best Days” and “It’s Love” — and “Sturdies Bay,” a wordless minute and a half of harmonies that dive and soar and twirl like birds flying home for the winter. Like each of the latter three Softies albums, Holiday is 14 tracks and just under 40 minutes. As the band knew when they picked up their pink guitars five years before, consistence is a virtue.

The band’s vocals are relatively free of reverb here, sung with a touch more breathiness and tiny moments of quivering. Melberg sounds a long way from the girl who bounced through “Puzzle Pieces” nearly a decade earlier. But there’s comfort in that maturity, even if it appears in the urge to give the band a lot of hugs. Out of the studio, Melberg and Sbragia may not have needed them. Listening to a concert recording from Boston’s the Milky Way in October 2000 shows a different side: the duo’s stage banter is bright and smiling. Melberg giggles at recognizing a fan. The performance is passionate and committed — unworthy of the audience’s conversation static.

Still, the band had taken the confines of their sound as far as it could go. They’d created a catalog unmatched for loveliness by any of their colleagues — songs that were confident enough to be quiet and humble and vulnerable. Sad music is rarely that way, especially among male performers: the songs of “vulnerable” performers who were about to follow, including Bright Eyes or Dashboard Confessional, may have given up the masculine shield of electric guitars, but they didn’t trust gentleness or simplicity to share their feelings. That’s not necessarily a critique — both artists have fine material, whatever the snobbier kids may have said about them when they made their debuts — but the nascent emo movement offered a different kind of message than the Softies or even Elliott Smith, one that answered pain with as much rejection as the antagonistic meatheads of modern rock radio. The Softies were brave enough to accept heartbreak. We should all be half that strong.

Post-Softies, 2000-2012 (And Reunion!)

The Softies’ catalog is a world unto itself, but Rose Melberg and Jen Sbragia didn’t stop making music after the band’s informal disbanding. Melberg, who became pregnant after the final tour, would spend the next five years raising a child; she returned in 2006 with Cast Away the Clouds, a release for Double Agent Records very much in the vein of the Softies’ last material. The harmonies here are Melberg’s alone; the way she blends notes on “Take Some Time” and “Irene” would impress Brian Wilson. The instrumentation is largely acoustic, a softer palette, ironically enough, than her twee-as-fuck past.

Melberg had released an earlier solo album, 1998’s Portola — an compilation-ish album that gathered several years’ worth of recordings. Despite a variety of styles and production levels, it hangs together reasonably well — “Deep Purple” and “Loose Talk” find her trying country on for size, and much of the rest could’ve been Softies outtakes (Sbragia plays on several tracks). Songs such as “Another Cup of Coffee,” just acoustic guitars and Melberg’s voice, offer a preview of the singer-songwriter direction she would go on eight years later. There’s also “Mr. Spaceman,” a lo-fi Byrds cover, which as winning a lost ’90s twee treasure as it gets.

In 2009, Melberg returned to K to release Homemade Ship: a proper, full-on singer-songwriter effort that eschews the major 7th chords in favor of finger-picked minor arpeggios. It’s less immediate and melodically direct than much of her catalog; on her L.A. tour stop, she referred to it as a “mom record.” But the feelings are no less strong, the music no less lovely and graceful. She played two shows in L.A. that year with Larissa Loyva in a single night, which I spent most of trying not to wet myself and crossing my fingers for a Softies track. That’s me by the door with the camera around my neck at the end of this video.

In 2011, she released the eight-track Brave Irene EP on Slumberland with a new band of the same name, a noisy, guitar-and-synth effort as energetic as her ’90s projects; a year earlier, she rejoined with Go Sailor to play a handful of reunion shows devoted to Slumberland’s 20th anniversary.

I made the L.A. date, which also saw the first and last L.A. performance of should-be twee heroes Pants Yell! Here’s what I wrote at the time:

I was there, of course, for Go Sailor — one of twee matriarch Rose Melberg’s numerous groups and my favorite of her full-band endeavors. After a decade of a Rose-free Los Angeles, getting to see her on Sunday after last October’s solo shows came like manna from heaven. The band played a tight, joyous set with the best of their 14-song catalog and even a Softies cover, the early Slumberland single “Love Seat.” Be still my heart!

Jen Sbragia stayed busy, too: after the 1998 foundation of the All Girl Summer Fun Band, the group released three albums of buoyant pop, including 2008’s Looking Into It. She’s now doing art and design — for Nike(!), among others — and has joined Melberg in motherhood. In 2009, she told an interviewer, “Life is good… Rose and I are still good friends.” She’s also on Twitter and has five followers, one of which is, you guessed it, me.

The Softies have played at least one public show in the last decade, a set at Veloria in Seattle in 2006 (documented on YouTube), but that’s about to change: the band will play a reunion show as part of the influential Chickfactor zine’s 20th anniversary. Black Tambourine — perhaps Tiger Trap’s nearest contemporaries — will also reunite, and the two shows, in New York and Washington, D.C. this April, are an indie-pop lovers’ dream. The Softies will play April 12 at the Bell House in Brooklyn; if you’ve been reading along all week, you are now completely prepared.

As you might guess, I spent the next 20 minutes after hearing the news looking up airline prices. Chickfactor may hold another event in Portland, the Softies’ birthplace, so I’m holding out for a West Coast show. New Yorkers, no excuses. Warm your cold, Brooklyn-battered hearts and don’t you dare fucking talk during the set.

We’ve now come to the close of Melberg/Sbragia/Softies history and critical conversation, at least as far as I know, feel and am physically able to type. Thanks for reading—I hope it’s been worthwhile. Come back tomorrow for fewer words and more songs.