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Music Review: Soft Swells at Arlington’s Iota Club

Written By | Dec 12, 2014

WASHINGTON, December 12, 2014 – If Soft Swells hadn’t mentioned they were from California early on in their recent set at Arlington’s IOTA Club, that locale would have been a likely guess for this group’s home base.

That’s not to say that all bands coming from California sound alike. But, like a great many bands from that state, Soft Swells gives off a certain laid back energy. Coupled with their unique brand of vaguely psychedelic indie rock it becomes easier to figure out their point of origin.

Calling this four piece group “laid back” may not quite fit the descriptive bill, though. They certainly come across as anxious at various moments throughout their set. But those moments are relatively rare. Otherwise, it’s hard to ignore just how easygoing and accommodating they are, which is an odd thing to say about any kind of rock band.

Soft Swells’ overall performance attitude stems from the cohesiveness of their set as they move between songs, peppering the non-musical interludes with anecdotes while they prep.

The Soft Swells are, at their core, a story-telling band, though they don’t include that functionality within the lyrics of their songs. Instead, they seem to get a kick out of letting the audience in on their latest endeavors, like playing with a metal band the night before or what popular current song their next number might closely resemble. (In name only, of course.)

Otherwise, nothing earth-shatteringly serious enters the bands’ sphere while they’re up on stage. They make it clear that they’re creating music and stories for the audience’s enjoyment.

Adding to this impression is the surprising malleability of their sound. Theirs is essentially a pop/rock variation of a psychedelic band, one that weaves guitar and keyboards into melodic rhythm, but devoid of distracting qualities that can result in audience reactions ranging from mind-bending to head scratching.

It’s their sheer approachability that actually puts them squarely in a California band. It’s where that particular performance style took root, gradually branching out in different directions, eventually arriving in bands like Soft Swells.

While listening to Soft Swells perform, you can easily imagine they could alter their sound ever so slightly—depending on who else was on the bill—and adjust to the mood of any given audience. During their performance at IOTA, they were playing with an acoustic/rock hybrid and adjusted their songs to fit the mellower atmosphere that is almost the staple of playing at the IOTA Club. It would have been interesting to see them play with the metal band the night before because it’s well within their ability to change pace and tempo within their songs.

This musical malleability doesn’t work for all bands, nor is it something all bands should shoot for. Some bands – well, most bands – have a specific tempo that serves the kind of songs they perform; or they have an attitude they cop on stage that fits them and their desired image to a T.

It’s not in such bands’ self-interest to alter that look and feel once they’ve established it, lest they lose a carefully nurtured identity. But that peculiar flexible attitude that Soft Swells seems to have patented is a welcome variation on that rule that makes them unique.

This is the great accomplishment of Soft Swells. While they have moments when they’re clearly striving to hit perfection, most of the time, this is a band that’s comfortable self-identifying with their occasional flaws and embracing them. It’s something that makes them feel genuine and approachable.

Bands like the Soft Swells that are totally endearing to their audience don’t come around that often, or at least not as genuinely. It’s precisely their attitude that made their mellow, melodic pop/rock so appreciated by the equally mellow crowd at the IOTA Club. That makes their live show easier for everyone to lose themselves in it. And it’s a big part of their appeal.

Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer. He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years. Currently he lives in Vienna, VA. He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.