(Digitalis Industries) Keith Boyd 3.26.07
I was born in the 60's but I primarily grew up in the 70's. That was a weird decade in America . At the beginning we were still reeling from the aftereffects of the tumultuous Flower-Power era. The 60's had started well but ended in a real "brown-acid" bummer. There was Altamont , the Manson murders, MLK's assassination. Jimi, Janis, Jim and Pigpen all died. The Technicolor LSD visualized utopia had dumbed down into a bleak, smacked-out blah. The middle part of the decade was a study in contrasts. You had the decadent Disco scene percolating in the big cities while simultaneously Punk Rock reared its ugly head at a handful of clubs. Arena rock was at an all time high with mega-concerts like the "Cal-Jam" series playing to record crowds. By the end of the decade the greedy, free-market 80's were already on their way in.
Along with the crumpled burnout remnants that crossed over into the coming decade there were a few cool hippie ideas that had their roots in the 60's but really blossomed in the 70's. Among these were healthy organic food, running (solo fitness in general), yoga and the weird yet wonderful world of non-competitive-everyone wins games. I distinctly remember when I first encountered this new and softer world of sporting. I'd grown up in Maine and let's just say they didn't go for these new fangled ways in Maine . PE at school was a humiliating parade of jock-straps, group showers and Coach Marquard who felt the need to tell us about the biblical consequences of homosexuality or even a thought in that direction. Well when I moved to California imagine my surprise at what was considered PE. Gone were the nightmarish rounds of dodge ball and hockey. In were the spirited sessions of Hagoo, Earth Ball and The Human Machine. It wasn't until many years later when I was working at the SDSU library that I came to truly understand the philosophical underpinnings of my elementary and middle school physical education. I was reshelfing books one day when I grab three big and well-worn tomes all done in Earth tones. The pictures on the cover had what appeared to be a large gathering of slightly Hippie folks engaging in all manner of games. They had parachutes. They were making human pyramids. They were twisted in to various odd positions in some grassy field. One thing about them all was the how damn happy they looked. Everywhere you looked there were handle-bar moustaches, cutoff jean shorts, great big Elton John glasses and waffle iron sized running shoes. Rainbow suspenders were in a healthy abundance and so were various forms of bandanas. The overriding sentiment seemed to be that all of the world's problem could be solved if one would simply chill out and play a game or two. The rules of these games were structured to promote cooperation and minimize direct competition. I actually think that this approach was pretty cool. The strange part of it though was the adult focus of these books. In their very "Whole Earth Catalog" way they presented an imagined utopia that was possible through play. In the way of all things however, PE in public schools swung back more towards the middle. These days it's a combination of the old school and the Hippie approach and that's probably a good thing as well.
What does all of this have to do with the new self titled CD by Softwar? Well, a lot actually. From the artwork to the song titles Softwar have made a deep study of the gentle games approach to PE and in the process have come up with a deeply compelling and weirded out gem of a CD. Softwar is one of the more recent incarnations of the shape shifting, multi-headed Jeweled Antler Collective. These Northern California visionaries have brought us such wonderful and idiosyncratic combos as Thuja, The Skygreen Leopards and Flying Canyon (RIP Cayce Lindner). Softwar is a welcome addition to this roster. The music is a blissed out wash of spacey, echo laden goodness. Small backward, "breath sucked in sound" events multiply and build layers upon layers of drone that mask sweet and playful melodies. Amidst all of this circular carousel music are the gentle yet spooky mantras of Kerry McLaughlin . It's the sound of these chants that gives cohesion and form to the music. Her voice sounds like the kind of singing kids do when they think that no one is listening; sweet and gentle yet a bit scary. The lyrics seem to be the chants that accompany some of the various games mentioned above. Taken out of their "games" context however they are simply strange and beautiful and seem like fragments of some surreal code language, "Take it on the Pru-Eye-Aye, take it on the right". Like so much of the album these vocalizations sneak in and out of the mix. The whole piece plays out like a cat creeping around in the fog. Its layers of mystery are both exotic and inviting. Softwar is a warm and hypnotic debut. Let's hope that they aren't just a one shot side project and that we'll more of their inspired weirdness to enjoy in the future.