The Soft Hills Affirm Life with Devastating Power on Viva Chi Vede

Music Reviews The Soft Hills
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The Soft Hills Affirm Life with Devastating Power on <i>Viva Chi Vede</i>

Some musicians are so adept at translating sound into beauty that we can forget just how exceptional their gift is, even over the course of a single album. Since the first Soft Hills EP appeared in December of 2008, bandleader Garrett Hobba has reliably delivered songs that engulf the listener in their grip. It didn’t take long for Hobba to prove himself as an artist we should think of less as someone who merely writes songs and more as someone who channels transcendence via his fingertips. And he’s only gotten more skilled over time, steadily working at his unique amalgamation of folk, pop and indie rock. As one of his key defining features, Hobba often strains those core genre elements through a dreamlike psychedelic filter that suggests he has more in common with the high-def, “cinematic” mindset of space rock than his influences might indicate.

It comes as no great surprise, then, that Hobba and company further perfect their already-sublime sound on Viva Chi Vede, the seventh Soft Hills full-length. Never mind the fact that the lyrics center around a moment of profound internal crisis that Hobba managed to work through—The Soft Hills can bring you to your knees with sound alone. It takes them all of about 15 seconds this time, as opener “Medicine” begins with a quintessential Hobba acoustic guitar figure—unassuming, seemingly unremarkable, and yet somehow loaded with emotion—backed by a gorgeously eerie background hum. Drummer Garrit Tillman’s part and Hobba’s enter the scene together, Tillman’s spry beat bouncing along as Hobba harmonizes with himself, singing, “Please bring me my medicine.”

A quarter of a minute in, the listener is aloft, with a breathtaking aerial view of The Soft Hills’ magical world. Hobba’s melody intersects with his guitar strums in such a way that both open up into an expanse of sound that seems to go on for miles. Tillman, meanwhile, punctuates his rhythm with rolling fills, providing a textbook case against the tired old notion that drummers need to play generic parts in order to “serve the song.” And to his credit, Hobba leaves room for all involved to shine, particularly guitarist/keyboardist Jon Peloso, whose enthusiasm for finding old analog synths and guitar pedals proved indispensable to the sonic makeup of the album. By his own account, Hobba relished the opportunity to toy with Peloso’s finds, using the gear to create delicate background tapestries that only enhance the organic instruments in the foreground.

“Wood Between Worlds,” a song that one can easily imagine being sung around a campfire with an acoustic guitar, ends up being defined by its wealth of extra trimmings. Tillman, Peloso and upright/electric bassist Anthony Shadduck play their main parts softly to begin with, so the extra layer of subtlety is something to behold. These days, it’s fairly easy to lace a mix with ear candy, but The Soft Hills have gotten masterful at integrating these effects so that they become integral to the composition of the songs. On the gentle, Americana-flavored “Night Riders,” for example, the band incorporates steel guitars and hazy blips of static with such a refined touch that the song takes on an almost supernatural glow.

Artists like Cass McCombs, Steve Gunn and others have traveled down the same road as “Night Riders,” but Hobba and his bandmates have a way of re-purposing well-worn clichés. If you break “Night Riders” down, you realize The Soft Hills draw from electro-acoustic techniques that became alt-country staples 25 years ago, and yet they achieve a mood that’s undeniably vivid and fresh. For all the old equipment they used, there’s really nothing “vintage” about these songs. Befitting of the album title, which translates from Italian as “one who sees lives,” The Soft Hills are very much creating a living music. By the same token, their awareness of production, color and space can be traced back to veteran English groups like Doves, Elbow, Lush and even Pink Floyd.

One doesn’t have to know anything about the backstory (or its lyrical references to mental illness, UFOs, recurring dreams and redemption by ayahuasca) to get swept up in Viva Chi Vede’s strong emotional undercurrents. The album does, however, resonate more deeply when you consider how tragic it would have been had Hobba not been able to steer himself back on track enough to bring this music into existence. That said, the message here isn’t all that complicated, which makes it easier for The Soft Hills to so effectively charge the music with feeling. There are few examples of sound and words aligning so seamlessly as “Blow Away Your Sad Balloon,” for instance, a song that conveys both the triumph of overcoming grief and the full weight of said grief.

We tend to use the word “beauty” in an off-handed way, almost dismissively, like a trinket. Viva Chi Vede reminds us that beauty is not something to be taken lightly when we’re lucky enough to cross its path. In fact, the music—even aside from its lyrics—reminds us that beauty can be devastating if for nothing other than the way it moves us. Hobba’s songs swell with so much feeling that they can actually hurt to listen to. Alas, that’s what beauty is supposed to do sometimes. If Viva Chi Vede loses some of its shine over its second half, it’s probably because the band sets the bar so high over the first five tracks in a row. Most artists would regard any one of those songs as a high watermark. The Soft Hills should look at them that way, too. Once again, they’ve out-done themselves.

Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He believes that a music journalist’s job is to guide readers to their own impressions of the music. You can find him on Twitter and Substack at feedbackdef.substack.com