By Sarah Bennett
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By Jena Ardell
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The Soft Hands is all things to all people: little bit punk, little bit rock & roll, little bit country, said one guy after their first show, or little bit bald guy, little bit buff guy, little bit really awesome, said another drunker or just less polite guy a little later on. ("Thanks, that was a compliment, I think," singer/guitarist/barely balding guy Matt Fry said back.) But they tend to play tense and fast—punk?—and they run to catchy chorus sometimes—rock & roll?—and they put an untouched guitar through nothing but a tuner and present themselves without anything to hide under besides their own carefully rehearsed skill—country?—so you can see how a guy could be thinking. Bald/buff/awesome: eight months after meeting through dread Craigslist (not desperate, Matt says, but maybe next to desperate, he allows) want-ads, Soft Hands are welcomed with open arms.
Their songs move fast and so did they, going from a first handshake with drummer Casey Stuht to watching him screw his kit together to bouncing out most of the tracks on their first demo within a few weeks, playing wild in a UCI storage room—bassist Elizabeth Lindsey would move projectors out of the way so they could practice—and then trimming the songs back to a minimum, a clean, careful sound that a chemical engineer could appreciate. In now-band terms, they hammer away like good, old Thermals and do choruses like Spoon, chasing the tail of unprocessed rock & roll. They don't even have any effects pedals, says Matt. Nothing but a tuner, two amps and a drum kit, and now a new practice space at the Koo's komplex in San Pedro, which he describes by stretching his arms as wide open as they'll go, then reconsidering and tightening in about six inches (the small space has an effect on them, he adds—compression made pressure made them play tighter and faster).
And in old-band terms—none of them are much into anything new, says Elizabeth—they have Talking Heads with the first Modern Lovers' momentum, a very simple sound, in that conveyor-belt way that characterized Ohio-factory-shadow bands like Human Switchboard (currently leading a monster revival in mentions in this section) or Ubu or pen pals the Girls. Every Soft Hand laps the rest through a three-minute average of verse-chorus-extra-bits and then they're packed-up and ready to split in another 10 (they're an easy band at travel, says Elizabeth). But they're also a very calculated band: Matt says they just happen on their songs without even really trying to write, but they do record everything they do and then the music happens in the editing; all accidents written back with intent.
So modest lovers: the best Soft Hands songs are achievements in design; they seem formed of one piece at first and then crack open into millions. "I'm On Fire" goes through three big changes in its first minute, and each of those changes is lattice inside, with Matt singing or Casey channel-changing his drum pattern or Elizabeth peeling her bass back down to a lower octave, and there's a cute chorus like Eno with a little vino—if it were a punker song, it would then have all its pieces defined and one more arbitrary shuffle would finish them up. But by the time it's almost half-over, it hasn't really repeated itself yet, and when it does repeat—chorus too nice to not swim in twice—it repeats with new inflections and accents that mimic the feel of conversation more than music composition—the lightest, politest tap on the back that something a little new is coming up.
Matt laughs that he tries to keep his David Lynch . . . obsession, he calls it . . . out of the lyrics, but it's all over his architecture: he writes his parts with the same precision that makes it pay to watch the background in a good film—parallel narrative hiding at the edge of frame; parallel music around the outline of the song. Elizabeth, too: a Joy Division/Bauhaus fan (bands that learned their bass lines from Toland and Murnau) and Casey, too, a drummer who thinks of Horsemouth Wallace at Studio One when it's time to think role models, a drummer who Matt says never plays the parts they thought he would play, a drummer who can restrain himself into a hypnotic mama's-heartbeat pattern for almost a whole song and then blow out into some roaring Actuel-jazz 10-second non-composition (:47 into "I Hope So") before dialing back to quiet standby and a caterpillar-crawl guitar line by Matt, which doesn't announce itself until you have agreed to at least several listens. That's Soft Hands' soft sell: another bit part hiding in the background, another song floating into focus—another little bit really awesome, like the guy said.
THE SOFT HANDS PERFORM WITH HELL AT NIGHT AND DAGGER VAN GOGH AT SONGWRITER'S SUPPER CLUB AT DIPIAZZAS, 5205 E. PACIFIC COAST HWY., LONG BEACH. WED., 9 P.M. CALL FOR COVER. 21+.