There’s very little about the Black Hollies debut album, Softly Towards the Light, that you can’t glean within the first minute of listening to it. Nearly every trick at the band’s disposal is quickly on display. In fact, this is a record that can be reviewed with the three-word phrase, “British Invasion Homage,” but there are review minimums to be taken into consideration, so on we go.
This shouldn’t dissuade people from checking out this record. As far as unabashedly retro albums with no aspirations towards originality go, Softly Towards the Light is a damn good time. The Black Hollies have been paying close attention to the works of the Beatles, the Kinks, the 13th Floor Elevators, Creation, etc, and suffice to say, that attention has paid off. If you were to try and sneak any song off Softly Towards the Light into an all-mod play list, it’s doubtful anyone would notice the subterfuge. What’s more, you can truly pick any song off this record, and your choice would have no effect on the ruse, so completely homogenous is this album. There are miles of fuzzy guitar and an ostensibly endless supply of psychedelic keys. In case it’s not clear yet, the 60’s worship is thorough and complete.
If there is one fatal flaw to this record, it’s the vocals. This sort of music demands a little piss and vinegar from the singer, and front man Justin Morey doesn’t appear to be up to the challenge. The vocals are uniformly double-tracked and soaked in layers of reverb, giving the otherwise muscular music an incongruous dreaminess. What’s more, the vocals are just about the highest element in the mix, making them impossible to ignore. Sad to say, but this has a considerable effect on the listener’s enjoyment of the album.
Occasionally though, the band steps up and provides some of the necessary punch to compensate for the vocals lack of livelihood. “Lead Me to Your Fire,” is notable for reasons other than its blatant lyrical nods to a certain Roky Erickson band (“Come on down from the 13th floor”). Guitarist Herbert Wiley pulls off an impressively vicious little solo to pull the song screaming to its conclusion, and it’s one of the album’s few moments where the band truly transcends tribute act status.
But again, regardless of the lack of a unique musical vision, the Black Hollies are clearly clever observers of the genre from which they are liberally ransacking. By and large, they get the details right, right on down to the thoroughly inconsequential lyrics, which are unvaryingly in the “Wow, whatta pretty girl” mold. These lyrics, much like Softly Towards the Light in general, are simultaneously nothing offensively bad and nothing all that exciting. The Black Hollies aimed for the middle and modestly succeeded, but whatever the band’s intent, heaping praise on a band so defiantly in debt to a specific era and sound just doesn’t seem right. Conversely, it’s difficult to fault a band for a lack of originality when it doesn’t even appear to be on their agenda.