Tuesday, May 17, 2016

As We Make Our Way (Unknown Harbours)

As We Make Our Way (Unknown Harbours)
(The Flower Shop Recordings)

There is something special about each Sophia album.  Each album is immaculately recorded.  Every instrument shines with clarity and depth. Each album is sleeved with tastefully simple but effective artwork and packaging.  And, of course, it always takes some effort to track down.  I first encountered Sophia twenty years ago when I purchased a double 7” single that included two songs each from long-time favorite Swervedriver, and Sophia.  Both Sophia songs assured that I would be hooked on this new band.  Unfortunately, that would be the last time I ever saw one of their records or CDs in an actual record store, so it’s always been about tracking down each release via mail order. 

Robin Proper-Sheppard is essentially Sophia.  He has led various incarnations of his band now over six fantastic and incredibly consistent albums spanning the last twenty years.  As We Make Our Way is no exception.  Though it’s been seven long years since the last tour de force There Are No Goodbyes, it’s clear that Sheppard has not lost his way, at least musically.  He has always been a voice of clarity for the downtrodden.  His lyrics have always represented those of us who have a hard time accepting our lot in life and feel regretful over pretty much every decision we’ve ever made.  He accepts the blame for all of our wrong-doings and finally comes right out and says so in “Blame” halfway through this collection (“it’s okay, I’ll take the blame / for the both of us), atop his ever present acoustic strum and piano phrase that mirrors the short instrumental opener “Unknown Harbours.”

Things really take off with the powerfully pounding drums of the epic “Resisting.”  The simple repeated lyrics ask why we’re always resisting (Temptation?  Leadership?  Status Quo? Happiness?), while the music swells to dramatic highs that hint at the huge orchestrated songs from Swans’ 1991 album White Light from the Mouth of Infinity.  It’s a song that has the patience to allow the musical tension to build and build, making the conclusion that much more satisfying.  The next two songs, “The Drifter” and “Don’t Ask,” recall Sophia’s long history of dusty downbeat trudging gliders that tell some kind of intriguing yet sad story.  Proper-Sheppard is so adept at these that they always sound fresh, even if he has already covered this ground.

Where this new album steps away from previous Sophia albums is at the start of side two.  “California” offers up a big bright sounding tune that actually feels hopeful.  Then comes along the grinding bass groove of the foot stomping “St. Tropez/The Hustle” and Robin’s falsetto in “You Say It’s Alright” over a repeated keyboard line.  The latter two tracks definitely show off some experimentation and, dare I say it, a more danceable approach. 

The final two tracks close out this collection in classic Sophia fashion.  “Baby, Hold On” is a slow builder that details his tendency to be a no show for important times in a relationship, but he offers a slight glimmer of hope that change may be coming, as he readily admits his mistakes.  Meanwhile, the closing song “It’s Easy to be Lonely” is an outstandingly effective indictment for everyone who feels sad and lonely, by pointing out that we’ve taken the easy way out.  In other words, we’ve made the decision to be this way (“Another chance to change is avoided”).  This is a beautiful and potent song and one that can be difficult to get through, as he finally points the finger at us (the lonely), instead of accepting the consequences himself, as usual.

It’s a shame that Sophia is not more widely known, especially in the U.S.  I would love the opportunity to see them perform live and hear this majestic music in person and at high volume.  However, I am thankful that they have stuck it out for so long and offered us so many great songs.

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