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.”