Updated: Dec 19, 2020
Bucolica - Soft Power
Review Matt Hoyne, reposted with kind permission by the author
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Reading the album notes for Soft Power’s Bucolica, there is a reference to the music being influenced by “Australiana”. While I got the general gist of what Australiana could mean, it wasn’t until I started listening to the opening chorus/tremolo drenched guitar riff of Loving You Quiet that I immediately and intuitively understood. It feels strangely familiar to the music that my parents listened to, and that I imagine holds a place in the collective memory of most middle-class suburban 20-somethings. In Bucolica, there is the same catchy hooks and universal appeal of 80’s pop-rock bands like Mental as Anything, Split Enz, Hunters and Collectors and Crowded House. And so, after some posturing, I posit that Australiana = dad rock. And with Father’s Day looming around the corner, Bucolica is the perfect socially distanced gift idea for Dad!
I actually don’t make this suggestion lightly; I think that this album would make a great gift. Soft Power’s fearless leader, guitarist Matthew Roche, has achieved the seemingly impossible; a contemporary jazz guitar trio album that I can’t imagine anyone not liking. Bucolica is the musical equivalent of that person in your life whose perpetually sunny disposition, genuine kindness and generosity leaves you with a smile on your face long after you’ve left them*. The music isn’t afraid to be accessible and simple at times, but never feels referential – Soft Power’s schtick is completely its own. These compositions demonstrate a reverence for the well-structured song, filling their 4 minute-ish forms with varying grooves, feels and riffs. You won’t find any of that self-indulgent 10 minutes plus jazz stuff here – this music is joyfully concise and to the point.
What becomes apparent pretty quickly is how much of the songs are driven by carefully crafted hooks and riffs, rather than long solos or sections of improvisation. As someone who is pretty partial to lengthy guitar solos, I sometimes find instrumental music that is really repetitive can start to get a bit boring and rigid after a while. What makes Soft Power’s music so not boring is their understated musicality, collective band-sound and the sense of fun and sheer joy that imbues their songs. Amongst the band members there is a commitment to a way of playing that is really about best expressing the song, not so much about chops or complexity.
Take a track like Counting Sheep as an example, it starts in this loose, swung 3/4 feel, with a reverb heavy chord melody. And then it moves into a slow, 4/4 straight 8ths back-beat vamp then, after a little while, it kicks into a more rock-y vibe with a related section but featuring a new melody. Just as it really starts to get going, with some mean guitar work on Matthew’s behalf, it starts to fade out, ending the tune criminally early! All of these riffs are devilishly catchy and over the last few weeks I’ve had bits and pieces of this album stuck in my head for days! This way of writing music really makes it sound like a proper band, rather than just a bunch of people playing someone’s tunes (something that jazz musicians can often be guilty of).
At the same time, these guys are serious musicians in their own right, who’ve honed their improvisational concepts and abilities on their instruments. Just take Matthew’s short but oh so sweet guitar solo on my personal favourite track, Child’s Play. In just over a minute he plays the perfectly paced solo, filled with funky chord stabs and bebop-ish lines. There is something striking about the brevity of this solo. As a fellow improviser, I think one of the hardest things to do is play a concise solo that really says something and this solo is a prime example of exactly that. Throughout the record, Oscar and Chris skilfully walk a fine line between playing their “parts” and knowing the perfect times to stray into unknown territory. At the core, they are consummate accompanists, contributing so much to the music without ever getting in the way of Matthew or the vision of the song.
Listening to Bucolica over the last few weeks, I really get the sense of how much care has gone into making this music. Every last detail has been meticulously considered; from the striking concept of the album photography and design to the little recording tweaks in the post-production, the carefully chosen guitar effects to be used on a particular melody part or the flow of the track order. I feel a little late to the party as this album has been out since late last year and I didn’t even know! Music like this, where so much careful thought, time, patience and love have gone into it should be listened to far and wide. Maybe you should buy a copy for yourself AND dad because I’d hate for you to miss out on it!