To promote their debut full-length So Far No Further, Sweet Soul created a playlist that currently resides on the SoCal quintet’s Spotify profile. It’s a self-proclaimed “soundtrack” that chronicles the band’s varied influences (and, presumably, what they were listening to while recording). There are Rock Hall-friendly classics (Beatles, Stones, Byrds), punk godfathers (Ramones, Stooges, Clash), early hardcore heroes (Bad Religion, Descendents, Misfits), indie mainstays (Replacements, Pixies, Smiths, Hüsker Dü, Guided by Voices), glam (New York Dolls, T-Rex), and even some proto-Britpop artists (Stone Roses, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin).
These are all great acts, and you could do much worse than to count them among your musical inspirations. But what really matters is the distinctive touch a group adds to that inspiration in the creation of their sound, and regrettably, Sweet Soul doesn’t seem interested in breaking new ground in that regard. So Far No Further, released in conjunction with Chicago-based hardcore label/zine NMZ, is far more shrug than grand opening statement, wallowing in one well-worn pop-punk cliché after another for what feels considerably longer than the 23-minute runtime.
It’s not that they aren’t talented musicians. Ian Manness and Zach Manz are both technically proficient guitarists, and the rhythm section of Kyle Esbin (bass) and Brad Racine (drums) gives the songs a steady, driving heartbeat. If anything, the band’s greatest weakness is just how average they sound. Their arsenal of musical tricks seems limited to the staples of every pop-punk song chiming out of the wall-mounted TV in your local Hot Topic c.2009 while you sifted through stacks of Bob Marley tees. You’ve got your frantic power chords, your snaky Kim Deal-aping basslines, your big thumping drumbeats, your hopeless romanticism, your chorus of stale whoa-ohs, that staccato YELL! ING! TO-THE-BEAT! thing, etc.
All ten tracks on Further recycle and regurgitate these corporate mall-punk tropes. As a result, the songs have no discernible personality—save the occasional low-risk guitar solo or well of distortion—and bleed together into a shapeless half-hour slog. If it wasn’t especially innovative a decade-plus ago, it’s downright empty now. There’s nothing here you couldn’t find on your run-of-the-mill Green Day or Blink-182 record—and those guys did it a whole lot better. (That’s not to say, of course, that punk necessarily calls for any sort of sonic eclecticism—but it does call for something to hold its audience’s interest.)
Much of the problem lies with cofounder Taylor Soul (relation to Starsky & Hutch’s David yet to be determined)—he proves an unremarkable frontman at best, his performances dragging down the production at every turn. Soul sings like he has a head cold, every line delivered in a grating, affectless nasal monotone. And that’s when you can hear him over the humdrum din of his bandmates (seriously, who mixed this thing?).
It doesn’t help that the group’s songwriting reeks of first-draft amateurism. Further is packed with embarrassing lyrical turns that would teeter dangerously close to self-parody if they weren’t so goddamn bland. Soul, with his sappy, paper-thin drone of a voice, trips constantly over his own awkward half-rhymes and lovelorn sentiments.
Take, for example, the chorus to torch tune “Space You Need”: “It’s where I always want you to be/Staying contained in my bloodstream/I’ll drain all of my veins/Sustain all of your pain/I’ve got all the space you need.” Or this clunker from “At Odds”: “Trapped are we, just wasting our time/Chasing signs, nowhere blind.” Is there a message anywhere here besides I’m sad and heartbroken and everything sucks? Beats me.
Closer “All the Same” is the undisputed standout, as it’s the closest thing to an original or fresh idea to be found on Further. Manness and Manz launch into a doleful, fuzzy double-attack on the intro before the song takes flight on a bright and zippy riff that undergirds a genuinely affecting chorus (“If I have something to hate/“I can’t feel my own pain/Aren’t we all the same?”) The band sounds invigorated. But by then it’s too late, and the album ends just as they’re finding their footing.
Further is far from a great record, but it has promise. It’s a rare band that emerges fully formed on its debut, and Sweet Soul clearly know their way around a pop hook enough to evolve into something much more than the sum of their parts, should they choose to push themselves in that direction. In the meantime, you’d probably do much better to just give their Spotify playlist a few spins. You’ll get the idea.