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The Soft Cavalry - The Soft Cavalry Music Album Reviews

Though the ethereal presence of Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell is unmistakable, the UK band’s self-titled debut is often tedious.

The old “this isn’t a side project” cliché applies a bit differently to the Soft Cavalry, a UK band centered around the married duo Rachel Goswell and Steve Clarke. Already revered as the sighing singer-guitarist of reunited ’90s dream-pop trailblazers Slowdive and their country-folk successor, Mojave 3, Goswell has built on that legacy in recent years with a low-key supergroup, Minor Victories, and as a guest on new albums from American Football and Mercury Rev. Her ethereal presence is unmistakable on the Soft Cavalry’s self-titled debut. But the dominant voice here belongs to Clarke, who played in various lesser-known acts before meeting Goswell while tour-managing for Slowdive in 2014.

The Soft Cavalry arrives less as a Slowdive extracurricular activity than as a new outlet for Clarke, whose brother and former bandmate Michael Clarke produces. Along with Midlake/Mercury Rev keyboardist Jesse Chandler, the lineup also includes a drummer who has collaborated with the Clarke siblings on other projects (including backing Ricky Gervais in a 2016 mockumentary film). The resulting collection of cavernous electro-rock, elaborately adorned psych-pop, and winsome ambient-folk is polished and professional-sounding, but it’s also as tedious and unmemorable as the group’s name.

There are glimmers of promise. Lead singles “Dive” and “Bulletproof,” also the album’s opening one-two punch, set Steve Clarke’s wispy, overly processed lead vocals and Goswell’s glassy harmonies amid click-tracked gloom that’s passably reminiscent of Radiohead’s early-’00s followers like Doves. Slowdive fans should welcome Goswell’s lead vocal on the pastoral lullaby “Passerby,” though the song is also an example of how the type of nature metaphors often used to describe her other band are something of a tic in Clarke’s lyrics, as “mountains peak,” “rivers flow,” and “waters break.”

Within this lane of poe-faced, British-style, aughts-throwback indie rock, the album doesn’t lack for variety. “Never Be Without You” is a jangling love song that reaches for the Cure but falls short. “Only in Dreams” is drumless and meditative, with fluttering woodwinds. “Mountains” is a painfully cheesy neo-psych power ballad. The biggest departure is “Careless Sun,” which drapes Clarke’s and Goswell’s vocals in vocoder-like effects, though with its orchestral bombast and portentous lyrics about “ancient prophecies,” it’s also the album’s worst clunker.

Most songs are brooding and midtempo, underpinned by one-finger piano lines and bland drum programming, repeating undistinguished metaphors longer than concision might demand. The title of romantic duet “The Velvet Fog” happens to be American crooner Mel Tormé’s nickname, but the song’s trudging pomp-rock recalls any number of early-millennium UK hype bands that most people have rightly forgotten. Finale “The Ever Turning Wheel” is an arena-scale, seven-minute enactment of a commonplace lyrical concept about a wheel that’s “not slowing down.” On the same song, Clarke also urges, awkwardly, “Keep your head above the water that is rising.”

The most intriguing non-single on The Soft Cavalry is “Spiders.” Although still a little ponderous, and at least a minute too long, the song works because the ideas behind it are as remarkable as the album’s always-lavish production. The bass line is so bare and jagged that it’s almost a hook, and the lyrics, which I hear as comparing a new love to two spiders building a fresh web together, are genuinely unusual. “Leave our webs,” Goswell and Clarke’s voices intone, “Begin again/Like spiders.” It’s a shame their first album as an artistic unit isn’t as compelling, but with luck and a little inspiration, there will be more silk to spin.

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