Soft Circle: Not Built for iPods
When you mostly only listen to music on headphones, it can be a minor shock how different stuff can sound when you bother to play it on actual speakers, when you give it a chance to fill up a room and make the air feel different. I've written briefly a couple of times about Full Bloom, the newish record from Soft Circle, the trippy analog ambient solo project of former Black Dice drummer Hisham Bharoocha. But up until yesterday, I'd only ever listened to the album on headphones. Full Bloom certainly seems to be a headphones album: it layers lots of quiet sounds on top of each other, subtly letting those sounds tease little details out from each other and building up a sort of immersive atmosphere. But last night, I put the album on my battered CD boombox when I was unpacking boxes in my new apartment, and everything changed. Some albums are built to interact with real-life environments, to expand beyond one person's headspace, and Full Bloom is one of those albums. My new Park Slope apartment is smaller and older than my old Greenpoint one. It has a fireplace and weird molding around the ceilings, and it's right across the street from the unbelievably fucking massive Greenwood Cemetery. That cemetery, with its chaos of vividly green trees and haphazardly arranged gravestones, looks peaceful and inviting during the day and creepy and ominous at night. Living next to this thing is going to take a while to get used to; it radiates serenity and anxiety in equal measures, and I could say the same thing about Soft Circle; Full Bloom feels like it was made specifically for my apartment. A couple of months ago, I called the album's tracks "rippling, pounding dance songs," but that wasn't really right at all. The album is instrumental, but it doesn't have much to do with classical or jazz or dance. Almost all the tracks drip with drums, but only one, album-closer "Earthed," has the sort of distorted electronic basslines and 4/4 drum-patterns that reach even tentatively toward techno. Instead, most of those drums sound like what happens when longtime city-dwellers try to do something that sounds ancient and tribal.
That's not a knock. Part of the bargain you make when you move to a city like New York is that you'll constantly pining for quiet, empty spaces. Most native New Yorkers, understandably enough, don't seem to have this problem. But Bharoocha isn't a native New Yorker; if his Wikipedia bio is to be believed, he lived in Tokyo, Toronto, L.A., San Diego, Tokyo again, and Providence before he moved to New York, and so it makes sense that Full Bloom would come with some of the free-floating anxiety that comes with spending most of your life wandering nomadically. In Providence, he briefly joined Lightning Bolt and then spent a few years in Black Dice, which is one way of saying that he spent a lot of time in some extremely confrontational bands. Black Dice made their names while reportedly punching random audience members in the face, and they didn't exactly become less confrontational with 2002's Beaches and Canyons, where they moved toward quieter music. When you abruptly switch gears from splattering noisecore to burbling abstract new-age sighs, you're fucking with us, at least on some level. I absolutely loathed Beaches and Canyons when it first came out; I was at an age where all I wanted from music was blood and thunder, and this album happily refused to give me either. Maybe I'm old enough to like it now; I wouldn't know, since I sold that shit back to the used-CD store years ago. But Full Bloom might be the first record Bharoocha's made that doesn't try to fuck with us. Instead, it lulls. Jess Harvell hears Full Bloom as a possibly-unintentional statement on what happens when hardcore kids get older; I hear it as what happens when people spend too much time surrounded by concrete, when they start imagining what else might be out there. The album is totally nonrepresentational; there are plenty of wordless hums and cries and breaths, but there's not a lyric to be found. Every once in a while, one element will jump out of the mix, like the plunking xylophones on "Sundazed." More often, though, everything melts together into a sort of aural soup, its drums and chimes and guitar-noodles all floating into each other until they're an indistinct gooey mass. Some of those flutters can sound vaguely threatening, but more often, they just rumble pleasantly and aimlessly along. It's not quite right to say that Full Bloom sounds like nature; instead, Full Bloom sounds something like a perpetual urban dweller's fantasy of nature, of crystalline streams and gently swaying trees and majestic deer and shit like that. It's a midafternoon daydream of an untouched idyllic landscape that probably doesn't exist, and it makes a lot more sense coming from a rootless urban artist than it would from someone who'd actually spent his entire life somewhere unpopulated. When all that free-drifting longing finally congeals into the vague menace of "Earthed," it feels like a slow-dawning realization that you're not getting out of the city anytime soon and you might as well just deal with it.
And so when I heard all this wafting sound on my shitty little boombox speakers last night, it crept into all the nooks and corners of my apartment and somehow inhabited them. It tied the room together. When I listen to this album on headphones, which I'm doing right now, it's a lot easier to just tune out, to passively absorb these sounds without feeling. But the album has a lot more weight when it's given some sort of physical presence. My original plan for this entry was to compare Full Bloom to Panda Bear's Person Pitch, another vaguely dance-informed introverted freeform new-age meditation from someone who's kicked around the same New York noise-scene circles as Bharoocha. That comparison wouldn't really work, though. Panda Bear lives in Portugal these days, and he's married with a kid, and so Person Pitch feels like a reflection on internal piece more than a fantasy of it. Everyone else seems to love Person Pitch to pieces, but I can't really find my way into it. Part of that is based on simple aesthetic preferences, I'd rather hear Bharoocha's buried-in-the-mix wail than Panda Bear's mutated Brian Wilson helium self-harmonies. But I think part of it is circumstantial, too, and this sort of diffuse open-heartedness makes more sense when it's informed by actual urban life than by simply the memory of it.