There’s so much to say, culturally, about Soft Sounds from Another Planet. And yet I’m not going to say any of it! Ironic, isn’t it? The reason, of course, is that there’s so much to say musically, too. Music is not moral. It’s not a “thesis statement.” If it resolves issues at all, it does so abstractly, pertinent to feelings in the mind, not semantic messages with language. Lyrics might entertain and remind us of the human thing of all of it, but if it’s so human, too, why is it even notable?
In regards to musical influences, album sequencing, and artist genuineness, there’s plenty going on from here from the moment the Philadelphia singer/frontwoman Michelle Zauner first straps on her Fender, but it’s all rendered all the more complicated all over this piece by the incredibly ABSORPTIVE quality this stuff has. “Diving Woman” cascades around a single, cooing and incessant guitar riff which is muffled deep within a mix of throttling bass and assertive drums. The systematic delivery of all these different elements, along with a distinctive vocal which isn’t so much coy as it is disarmingly shy, makes the composite result serene and hypnotic. “Diving Woman”’s six minutes and change go by in a flash and soon we’re to “Road Head” (now you see why I thusly qualified my musical commentary), which is more twee pop this time infused with greater whimsicality of guitar frill, like a musician having romance with herself (but thinking about something else).
“Machinist” opens with spare sound effects, treated harpsichord (really) and ominous organ which reminds me of the intro to Bobby Digital a little bit. Luckily, Zauner’s impulsive spoken-word musings are more enjoyable than that narcissistic groupie-recruitment going on there (big shout out to Wu-Tang for their awesome new album though), and Soft Sounds from Another Planet is starting to effectively play like one big narrative of someone’s life, albeit someone who’s hilariously care-free and only wants to explore life (ahem, anatomically, that is). Gentle, ethereal yet busy pop over soft drum machine ensues. Actually, the first two tracks also tendered programmed beats, you just didn’t notice it (call it the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah phenomenon). If you’re listening to “Planetary Ambience” as part of the larger LP whole and you don’t know that it’s only a minute and 17 seconds long, you might be prone to saying something like “This is the coolest intro to a song I’ve ever heard” — a treated, oozing and intricate synth riff all within a veritable miasma of sounds in which I’m pretty sure I heard harpsichord, guitar and just barely a hint of percussion, like one tiny little kick knock per measure or so. For all its complexity, it will harvest as a simple advancement in pop production, all the better for having essentially a DIY pedigree about it, the work of co-producer Craig Hendrix at Agave Recording. The title track will call to mind Sigur Ros with a slow, celestial vocal, before transforming into a much more kinetic form, deliberate guitar pop bothered by these surreal pedal-pokes, giving way then to a beautiful solo on the “lap steel.” In my opinion, Zauner is drawing vocal technique here heavily from Thom Yorke, particularly his bizarre, demented “Like Spinning Plates” charade. Still, she winningly familiarizes it all, and the real achievement of this album is its assortment as a bona fide stew, none of whose ingredients overly impose themselves.