Making the Grade
Overflower and The Soft Set

It's become far rarer than it once was to find new, largely unheard records that make my head spin. Maybe it's my age. Maybe I am just much harder to impress than I once was, and that of course is just fine. Perhaps too it really is the case that there is less and less out there that really makes the grade.

Whatever, I must be in heaven this week because there have been two releases that have landed in my lap around which I can see myself forming some pretty obsessive relationships.

First of all there's Overflower, who hail from Providence, Rhode Island; the city who gave us, amongst other, the mighty Small Factory and which was immortalised by Sonic Youth on Daydream Nation. Overflower sound nothing like Small Factory or Sonic Youth, unless it might be the Sonic Youth of slow spooked moments, but even that's stretching the imagination I guess. Instead Overflower cast a net that lands softly around the sounds of the Blue Nile of A Walk Across The Rooftops, Yo La Tengo of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out and Talk Talk of Laughing Stock, pulling their impressive catch towards shore over the rocks of the supple rhythm of Tortoise circa their eponymous debut. The results, as evidenced on their new album Water On Mars are bewilderingly, astonishingly beautiful. The hints of greatness were there on their lush 1999 Flora and Fauna (Brentwood Estates), but it certainly didn't prepare me for the leap of faith that Overflower have made with Water On Mars. Whenever I play this album, which is as often as possible this week, I feel my past tighten up behind me, ready to roll all over me, like the Ui style drums that open up the heart of 'Rise And Crawl', a song that dwells in that just past the dead of evening time that the afore-mentioned Blue Nile once occupied so effortlessly. And in fact it's that very same kind of effortlessness that makes Water on Mars stand out in the current climate: there are no histrionic demands for attention, no in your face proclamations of worth and proficiency, just a quiet, gentle but awesomely assured composure. But that history, that past is still there, ready to pound me into magnificent surrender.

Jim Sallis, or is it Lew Griffin, rightly says that our memories, our pasts, are not wraith-like but are rather all too solid and powerful. Overflower seem to realise this too, because their music, whilst often underpinned with an ambient sweep of ebbing and flowing guitars and keyboards, also relies heavily on rhythms. It's the rhythms of life, the rhythms of our eternally damned loops through time, revisiting our histories past present and future with every breath. Which means that, for me, this week, Overflower connect seamlessly with other threads that follow me around, tying me into daydreams and insomniac nights of babbling head full of possibility and above all, pasts. Pasts that echo and kiss me full on the lips. Pasts that swallow their pride and sidle up to future brides and proclaim eternal love. Pasts that fracture and spew hair stroked, crown placed tenderness. All in a name, the geometry of cheekbones and genetic inheritance.

'We thank you for the ride' sing Overflower on 'Thank You', but believe me, the thanks, the pleasure, is all mine.

When I have been able to prise Water on Mars from the stereo this week it's invariably been replaced by an eponymous debut set by West Texas' The Soft Set. The Soft Set reflect similar connections to Overflower, although perhaps they burn more with the after-image of the likes of the Go-Betweens, Felt and The Pastels. Indeed, on one occasion at least, the very excellent 'The Way She Smiles', the Soft Set sound for all the world like an out-take from Up For A Bit. With its eyes-cast to a mediated past to make the present more bearable, it's a song of loping, knowing glances and fevered brows unseen in the cinema, in love with the screen and the knowledge that although it's only the most fleeting of uplifted feelings, it's all we've got. Elsewhere, there's a great celebration of the short sharp Pop experience in 'Record On'. Bloody obvious it may be, and all the better for it, 'Record On' is the upbeat darling companion to Clem Sinde's 'Your Favourite Music'. 'I don't feel so alone, when I got a record on' sings Soft Set vocalist William Crain, and you cant help but chorus him with hallelujahs and testify's.

And then of course there's the spirit of Felt at work here too. I know that Felt sounded strange as hell in the dead-end of West Coast Scotland, so I can only imagine how much stranger they must have sounded in West Texas. The Soft Set then end up sounding not really anything obviously like Felt at all, but rather reverberate with the same sense of depth; the same sense of cloaking dark tales of existential, solitary confinement outside of the world within melodies and arrangements you could hum for hours.

The Soft Set is the scratchy sound of isolated souls searching for release in a system designed to deny them existence. It's at times a searching, oddly haunting sound finding strange new paths to navigate, whilst at others finding only dead ends. Which is as it should be. I look forward to more of their explorations in the near future with baited breath.

© Alistair Fitchett 2002

Overflower's Water on Mars is released on Ethereal records. Visit their website here.
The Soft Set is on Take It All. Contact the Soft Set for details of how to get hold of it here.