(SXSW 2015 flavoured!) Album Review: Rathborne – SOFT

By on Friday, 20th February 2015 at 12:00 pm
 

Rathborne SOFT coverThough only in his early twenties, American singer/songwriter Luke Rathborne already has a full career’s worth of experience under his belt. Born in Brunswick, Maine, Rathborne started learning the guitar at age 12, when a stranger passing through his hometown left the instrument at his house. He is also a self-taught record producer and engineer, having recorded his first album ‘After Dark’ at age 16 after sneaking into his local college recording studio after hours and learning to use the equipment. The album was self-released in 2009 and garnered enough interest from the music industry to prompt Rathborne to relocate to New York, where he is currently based. He first made waves in the UK back in 2011, when his double EP ‘Dog Years/I Can Be One’ attracted the attention of BBC 6 Music presenter Lauren Laverne.

Rathborne’s current project is a new full-length LP titled ‘SOFT’, recorded under the eponymous full band moniker Rathborne. The band Rathborne features Darren Will on bass in addition to the guitar and songwriting talents of Luke Rathborne himself. ‘SOFT’ was produced by Rathborne and Emery Dobyns (Battles, Patti Smith), with co-production by The Strokes’ Albert Hammond, Jr. and Gus Oberg, and was released in America in 2013.

This week’s UK release of ‘SOFT’ was preceded by the release of its catchy first single, ‘Last Forgiven’, back in December. You might have heard its lively rhythms on BBC Radio 1 even before that; it premiered in July 2014 as Zane Lowe’s “Next Hype”. The kitschy retro-’80s vibe of its accompanying video is at once infectiously energetic and painstakingly nonchalant.

‘Last Forgiven’ is a fair representation of ‘SOFT’ as a whole, capturing Rathborne’s singer/songwriter-meets-punk-band combination of musical energy and lyrical power. The track’s lo-fi production quality keeps the bouncy tempo and propulsive rhythm from overwhelming Rathborne’s air of mild ennui with its own eager ambition in the repeated lines “you gotta take that number, take that shot”. The lyrical phrases are concise and direct, making their impact by virtue of punchy rhythms and Luke Rathborne’s deliberately blasé vocal tone.

The album opens with the hard-edged, heavily-distorted electric guitars of innuendo-laced title track ‘Soft’, and while that sound reappears periodically throughout, the predominant musical characteristic of the album is its strong bass presence. Rathborne make use of the bass as a foundation for their variety of sonic moods, including the R.E.M.-style jangly guitar sound of ‘I’m So Tired’ and the sparsely arranged power chords of ’80s retro track ‘Eno’.

Luke Rathborne takes a ‘Little Moment’ midway through the album to show off his singer/songwriter chops in a softer guitar arrangement, accompanied by the gentle lilt of female backing vocals. But the album’s real standout songs come after this point in the tracklisting. ‘Wanna Be You’ is immediately reminiscent of the Ramones, with its perverse opening lyric “Saw you in a magazine / wanna be you / I don’t care about the way it seems / I wanna be you”, while the bluesier sound of ‘Deal’ is more like Lou Reed, whose band The Velvet Underground is counted among Rathborne’s stated musical influences.

Final track ‘So Long NYC’ is written as a farewell to the city, but also to a romantic relationship, as Luke Rathborne explains in the press release for ‘SOFT’: “I felt like love had imploded. There was no place for me to be anymore. That’s a strange thing to feel when you’re 23. Like everything had gotten out of control. I ran out of money. I ran out of time.” Rathborne expresses those complicated emotions at the end of the album in its lengthiest and most musically expansive track, with a heart-palpitating tempo and multiple instrumental layers gradually building over the heavy bass pulse.

The sheer variety of musical elements on ‘SOFT’ might at first seem to be a bit all over the shop, but the album comes together as a cohesive unit in the end, with Luke Rathborne’s inner troubadour finding a home in the punk rock ethos he and his bandmates have worked together to create.

8/10

‘SOFT’ is out now on Luke Rathborne’s record label True Believer. Rathborne and his band are scheduled to appear at SXSW 2015 next month in Austin, Texas.

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