The Soft Cavalry is more than just a Slowdive side project. In fact, it isn’t a Slowdive side-project at all: it’s an endeavor orchestrated almost entirely by Steve Clarke, husband of Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell. Clarke is no newcomer to the music scene; he’s been steady contributing to quite a few bands of the late 1990’s, and has all this time carried with him a unique penchant for emotional narrative songwriting. He and Goswell met (and married) when Clarke was managing tour for Slowdive, and this project is very much a union in every sense: of themselves, their songwriting, their vocal harmonies, and of course, their natural musical genius.
The record’s two opening tracks, which also rather fittingly serve as the two lead singles, provide the most accurate description of the range of the album. Opening single 'Dive' is a slow, unfurling track, while 'Bulletproof' is a more upbeat endeavour, cinematic and swelling, and reaches past genre boundaries to draw upon a few elements of electro-pop. The closing guitar solo is particularly remarkable simply because it is allowed to stand out; the song thus far has been carried by the electro-pop rhythm and not the background guitars, and now invites the listener to switch focus. 'Passerby' (the first non-single), however, unfortunately teeters on filler/interlude territory, especially in the shadow of 'Bulletproof', and rolls on a little aimlessly until the production elements kick in at the chorus and fill out the song.
'The Velvet Fog' is one that, with Goswell’s vocals, could easily be mistaken for a Slowdive song; the ’90s shoegaze integrands here are heavy. Subtle folk-rock influences make their way into this one as well, and the final guitar solo, like the one in 'Bulletproof', is equally as enthralling for the same reasons.
'Only in Dreams' is another standout track: if anything, this one forces you to stop. It’s softer than any of the other ones so far, and is the audial equivalent of a soft snowfall dusting its way over NYC’s Central Park. It’s sparkling, sultry, and at times a bit jazzy, making it the perfect transition track. The album takes a slight turn after this, shifting towards a guitar-driven approach, dark and intense, with 'Careless Sun' and 'Spiders'. Album closer 'The Ever Turning Wheel' comes back home to roost with its silky blend of reverb-soaked guitars and slightly drowned-out vocals, that make it the most obvious homage to ‘90s shoegaze there is on the album.
“In some ways, Steve and I are very different in what we like,” Goswell tells The Skinny UK in a recent interview. “We’ve got common ground, but there are some things that I love that he absolutely hates, and vice versa. It’s finding a balance between the two.”
And a balance they found. The key to The Soft Cavalry’s effortless balance, both on the album and as a duo, is Goswell’s voice. While Clarke’s vocals sounds exceptionally good on their own, it’s her own soft wispiness that yields a subtle emotional poignancy, adding a depth and new dimension to the work that make some songs unfathomable without her voice. That said, songs that are mainly Clarke ('Mountains') are razor-sharp, and its clear the two did a great job of determining just where she was needed.
If anything negative can be said about the band at this stage, it’s that they haven’t nailed down a sound yet — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Whereas an album of several sounds and genres may sound choppy, indecisive, and downright chaotic, The Soft Calvary avoids monotony by carefully choosing melodies that go well together to create a dynamic tracklist, sometimes dark and broody, sometimes orchestral and swelling. It comes full-circle with its genres, opening and closing with two tracks, 'Dive' and 'The Ever Turning Wheel', that effectively mirror each other in style and in lyrical theme, flawlessly bookending the work.
It would be a shame for The Soft Calvary to be remembered as Goswell’s stopover project between Slowdive albums; this project is an entirely different one altogether. It’s a needle-sharp blend of ’90s neo-psychedelia components, and the ’80s synth-pop/melodic-rock crossover that even the famed ‘90s experimental bands have tried (and failed) to master.
Standout singles 'The Velvet Fog' and 'The Ever Turning Wheel' are proof the Soft Calvary could be just as potent a band as Slowdive, while 'Spiders' and 'Home' are a testament to the unique but personal songwriting that Clarke has mastered on his first try. The album as a whole is smooth, straightforward, and well-ordered, and bears lyrics that are an ode to both Goswell’s and Clarke’s musical genius.
Words: Valerie Magan
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