Soft Cat is a project with a remarkably mature sound given its relatively short existence. Formed in 2009 by Neil Sanzgiri (Talking Tiger Mountain, Voot Cha Index), he wasted little time in recruiting a plethora of our city’s musicians to aid him in realizing a lush musical vision, including Andy Abelow and Bob Keal of Small Sur, and Adam Lempel and Brendan Sullivan of Weekends. So enthusiastic was he about his new-found home of Charm City (following a move from his native Texas) that he helped curated the huge weekend of like-minded music called Soft Fest at the aptly branded Soft House.
This darkened vision of folk presents dreamy, leaden layers that form a sound as mysterious as it is dense. Sanzgiri’s vocals are often plaintive, wistful, full of yearning. His heavy-lidded style is perfectly suited to their hazy sound. The album also draws on remarkably varied instrumentation including flute, saxophone, banjo, violin and more, in addition to the standard drums and guitars layout.
To me, the opening track “Silver Babies Sun” is undoubtedly the album’s opus. An atmospheric fog of acoustic chords and distant vocals is sparsely broken by brief, lucid melodies from achingly bowed violin, Andy Abelow’s (remarkably clarinet-like) sax, or the fluttering of Bob Keal’s trilled flute. Such an approach crops up again and again on the album. The pizzicato strings of “Wildspace” spring up like the dotted, patchy greenery amidst the urban landscape. “When My Brother Reaches Me” pulls out a country gallop and a twangy guitar line that gently coasts above it all. The banjo’s rinky-tink sound frequently fills this role as well (“Blackbird,” “Dark When It Should Be Violet Hour”).
Baltimore seems an ideal incubator for brooding, folk-inspired music with a haunting edge (much like Soft Cat’s). Charm City’s bipolar identity as both a city and a small-town is something pervasive, and I suspect attractive to people with these kinds of dueling interests, country colliding with city. The layout of Maryland and its relatively small and blurry separation between the highly rural and the metropolitan, as well as Baltimore existing more as a city of neighborhoods than a true metropolis, facilitates this feeling that nature and familiar tradition can easily seep into the dense, bleak urban landscape (both ecologically and socially). Amidst many of the city’s decaying ruins, you find nature slowly creeping its way back in, silently taking back the dead space with vibrant life. Soft Cat’s take on this dichotomy is inspired, and is one of the primary sources of both heft and warmth in their brand of folk.
The decaying roots of Baltimore’s blue-collar past on top of the harsh reality of modern urban blight are a weighty and inescapable presence that, at times, might seem incongruous with folk music. But upon further reflection, you’ll find it more than appropriate fuel for the struggles that inspire much of traditional folk. The result is something invaluable: a poignant score to life in Baltimore.
Label: Waaga Records
Release date: TBD
- Silver Babies Sun
- Dark When It Should Be Violet Hour
- It Won’t Be Long
- Mourn In The Night
- When My Brother Reaches Me
- Five Months Waiting
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