Blank City

Album review: Soft Reeds - Blank City

(Photo by Todd Zimmer)

When you go out and see live music, preferably a lot of live music (as you all should, y’know), you occasionally find yourself witnessing a performance that gives you the sense of something really big on the horizon. When Soft Reeds played the 2012 Middle of the Map Festival, I happened to be front and center for their set at recordBar. They ran through several songs that evening that I hadn’t heard before, and frontman/guitarist Ben Grimes said they were tracks from their still-being-written next album. Since then I’ve been telling anyone who would listen that, based on the five tunes they performed, their follow-up to 2010’s Soft Reeds Are Bastards was going to be a monster. One year later, the band has released its second full-length album, Blank City—and it would seem as if I got this one right.
The core four from their Bastards album—Grimes, percussionist Josh Wiedenfeld, multi-instrumental man John Mitchell, and funk mistress Beckie Trost on bass—were joined soon after by Jeffrey Harvey, whose keyboards and backing vocals added that extra bit of something that helped to pull the rest of the band into a more cohesive unit. Blank City comes in at a taut 31 minutes over its eleven-track playlist, and very few moments will leave the listener with the desire to sit still. “Pregnant Actress” is a case in point, as Trost’s effortless groove lays the foundation for what could pass for a lost classic from the heyday of Studio 54. The influence of Berlin-era Bowie can be found throughout the album, with “Nothing Changes” particularly showcasing angular, jagged guitar riffage—it’ll cut up some eardrums, without question. Grimes’ vocals are once again at their machine-gun-staccato best, which serves to augment the edgy arrangements that make Blank City a splendiferous indie-dance-floor classic in the making. 
Not every track follows the same game plan of getting people on their feet—not that there’s anything wrong with that. The opener, “17,” is a brief aside to a Moroccan marketplace where spices and savory goods are openly displayed for all to enjoy. “Hospitality” is an unexpected course-change that shows Soft Reeds can do more than just attack: they can musically woo as well, and who doesn’t like a little musical wooing now and then? And the album’s closer, “A Hysterical Woman,” once again proffers the Middle Eastern vibe of the opener, but instead of an open market you’re in a trendy hookah bar, zoning out on the smoke and the rhythm and Mitchell’s snake-like sax work.
Soft Reeds put down their sounds in the studios of Element Recording, whose owner, Joel Nanos, says of Blank City: “Truly one of the best albums to have graced this place.” Whether it was the surroundings, the move from a four-piece to a five-piece band, the cohesion of creativity and ability intersecting at just the right time, or a combination of all of the above, there is no doubt that the thoughts I had regarding this album a year ago have been validated. This is more than an improvement or a natural progression from their previous work; this is a band hitting on all cylinders, and they know it. The confidence, the tightness, the swagger … they’re all there. In abundance.
They may not be bastards anymore—but they’re hardly soft, either.
Soft Reeds will be celebrating the release of Blank City in Kansas City this Friday, April 26 at The Riot Room with special guests Be/Non and Rev Gusto. Facebook event page. Ticket link. And next Friday, May 3, the band will venture out to Lawrence with The Caves and Schwervon! to release the album at Replay Lounge. Facebook event page. You can purchase Blank City on iTunes and/or pre-order the vinyl with immediate digital download at The Record Machine Store.

--Michael Byars

Michael Byars is a self-confessed music junkie, used to drink Mountain Dew as if his life depended on it, has a second career in England as a juggling busker waiting for him if he wants, and once nearly made a purple-haired record store employee shoot tofu out of her nose. How many of you can say THAT, bitchez? 

(Video from I Heart Local Music)

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