Hisham Bharoocha has always focused on rhythm. His first instrument as a teenager in Tokyo was the bass, and after a brief stint in Lightning Bolt, his drumming helped make Black Dice one of the most important noise groups of the last decade. He’s provided percussion and electronics for Pixeltan, and in the ultimate proof of point, he helped organize both 77 and 88 Boadrum as the artistic director. Even his paintings, installations and video work suggest a certain pace and movement.
Surprisingly, that didn’t often factor into Bharoocha’s solo debut as Soft Circle, 2007’s Full Bloom. It was a charming but frustrating full-length, replete with extended instrumentals that felt distant to the point of disengagement, layers of echoing sounds and wordless vocals drifting from one headphone to the other, in and out and away in a New Age olio of swamped guitars and melodic suggestion. There wasn’t much concrete to take away from the record (save the stunning and appropriately titled “Moon Oar Sunrise”) — while great for a certain time, place and headspace, specific moments remain difficult to remember. That’s not the case with his second LP and first for Post Present Medium. Shore Obsessed takes the trials of Full Bloom’s loops and hazy ambiance and marries it to Bharoocha’s forte. The difference is striking.
It’s not a radical about-face so much as a development of what he’s been doing all along. I saw Bharoocha open for Boredoms in early 2008 and was struck at how much busier, how much more immediate his music felt than on Full Bloom. Almost three years later, it looks as if that album was just a way for him to clear his mind and start fresh. Shore Obsessed sounds more like the Soft Circle people would expect given the pedigree. Pushing play demonstrates this with no hesitation: “First Time” starts with a wordless vocal melody that’s been chopped up and phased in and out. One guitar follows the vocal as another noodles its way into the mix. A high-pitched synthesizer is added, and unlike anywhere on Full Bloom, it doesn’t take two minutes for Bharoocha to sing actual words. A cymbal rush and a disco beat follow. “It feels like the first time all over again,” he intones during the chorus. It takes but a handful of bars to notice.
Part of that may be attributed to the fact that Soft Circle is no longer exclusively Hishram’s domain. Ben Vida (of Town and Country, Singer, DRMWPN and Bird Show Band) joined Bharoocha in 2009 to make it a two-man enterprise. Though Vida plays guitar, his synthesizers have also risen to prominence. Songs like “Nerve of People,” “Reaper” and “Bonzer” make distorted synths as aggressive and domineering as the drums. Matteah Baim (Metallic Falcons) also adds some occasional backup vocals, most notably on “Bad Habit.”
Part of it may also be that Soft Circle has a specific target of inspiration this time: the environment. Unlike before, when Bharoocha’s aim went no further than translating “the beauty of everyday life into sound,” Shore Obsessed addresses environmental destruction and preservation. With a clearer intent comes a clearer sound. “I wanted to have a balance of accepting how messed up the planet we live on is at the moment,” he recently told The Village Voice, “and more positive thinking as I feel both those feelings, of fear and love of what is going on in the world right now.” It’s not obnoxious or overly preachy in its message, but with some of the aforementioned song titles and lyrics like ”You’re drowning in murky water” and ”Greed, hate and desire all wrestling in the dirt,” you don’t miss the point.
Soft Circle wants you to dance, yes, but it also wants you to act. The dance-pop influences are no accident — how else can one do something about corruption and negligence without first getting off the couch? But it feels cynical saying that, as if a heavily melodic and beat-driven album was some kind of deliberate ploy. It may have its chintzier moments, but Shore Obsessed is a conscientious effort to put positivity into the parallel pop world Hishram Bharoocha and Ben Vida inhabit. If dancing to the heavy rhythms of a two-man army and their visions of a better future sounds as good to you as it does to them, it doesn’t get much more attractive than Soft Circle at the moment.