Back in 1983, drunk on a heady cocktail of Minor Threat and Jonathan Richman albums, hard-core fan Calvin Johnson landed on a then-controversial idea: Punk rock could be about hugs and kisses as well as hate and war. The band and label he formed to prove the point, Beat Happening and K Records, helped create one of independent rock's most endearing genres, and one that's survived surprisingly well. Call it what you will -- love rock, twee pop, cuddlecore -- the Olympia, Wash.-based label has spawned a thriving cottage industry of bands that pine for the days of teddy bears and stolen kisses at the schoolyard.
The Softies are one of the best of the current K batch, mainly because their sharp songwriting skills keep their love-struck songs from sounding trite or forced. A simple two-guitar duo, Jen Sbragia and Rose Melberg (formerly of the late, lamented Tiger Trap), write bright, immediately appealing pop tunes that, lightly electrified, positively shimmer. A marked improvement on their charming but light-as-a-feather debut, 1995's "It's Love," "Winter Pageant" is full of crisp, sophisticated melodies, tugged along by Melberg's winding, plaintive vocals. The heavily arpeggiated sound is reminiscent of jazz-inflected torch songs, but without the lounge lizard pose, and much more diverse. The melancholy "Tracks and Tunnels" telegraphs a well-worn sincerity, and "The Best Days" languorously basks in its bright chords and hopeless romanticism.
The more flexible sound is welcome, since the Softies' lyrics really
inhabit only two modes: love's unbelievable bliss or its utter
devastation. The album's title track reminisces on "kissing raindrops on
your nose," while "No One At All" ruefully advises that "unrequited love's
the best way to stay alone." Still, like good Brill Building tunesmiths, the
Softies consistently find new ways to explore the usual
romantic themes. On the album's final track, "Make Up Your Mind," Melberg
sings about a couple debating whether they should remove from their fingers
the rings they gave one another. "Is your mind already made up?" Melberg
asks, her voice a firm but yearning sigh. By the song's end, we don't have
an answer, but one thing is certain: If the Softies' talent is any
indication, perhaps being a hopeless romantic might not be so hopeless