Soft March celebrates Farewell Party

It’s terribly ironic that a band would name its debut album Farewell Party – but the title of Soft March’s new record has special meaning for its chief songwriter Joel Kleine. He suffers from a progressive and incurable neuro-muscular disorder called Friedreich’s Ataxia, and is confined to a wheelchair.

“A farewell party is a happy occasion for a sad event,” he says, explaining how the thought sums up a lot of things about his own life as well the music of his band, performing its CD release show (with Danielle Dayton and Justine Vandergrift) Saturday night at the Aviary Norwood.

After the album was just about finished, the words “farewell party” came to Kleine in a flash, he says – and the album’s title track flowed quickly from there.

He says, “That moment kind of hit me almost 11 years ago when my neurologist said, ‘you have Friedreich’s Ataxia.’ In order to stop myself from fainting I had to put my head between my knees. I had a sense of what this was going to mean, how my life was going to change, and I didn’t know to what extent. That song is about that moment, saying goodbye to that part of your life that you’re never going to have again. Your new life is not the way you thought it was going to be – and that’s a farewell you don’t celebrate. There’s no farewell party for that kind of gone.”

The song may be intensely personal, but we can all relate to “feeling those changes in life that are kind of shitty,” he says.

Cast against the song Farewell Party – a devastating dead-slow bluegrass ballad rendered with just acoustic guitar and two voices (Rachel Gleddie and guitarist Paul Jensen; drummer Tanner Onciul sitting out for this one) – the rest of the album comes off like a hellish hootenanny. It’s nine tracks filled with jaunty folk-guitar-driven grooves somewhere between Steve Earle and Barenaked Ladies, if you can imagine it. They try a bit too hard, and there’s maybe a little too much glockenspiel, an instrument that should be used sparingly in rock ‘n’ roll, but the album is a rich and satisfying listen. Subjects tend to be grim and lonely. Themes of loss abound even as the propulsive arrangements drive you along, and in a neat trick somehow the major chords wind up sounding like minor chords.

“We sing happy songs about sad things,” Kleine confirms.

Like his previous band Bombproof the Horses, Soft March doesn’t tour or perform live as much as they would like, needless to say; Kleine needs help. But he lives for it. He says the two things keeping him sane are “my family and my music.”

On adapting his playing to his condition, he says, “I grew up a guitar player, but I had to switch to bass. The amount of coordination required for guitar is a little too much for me. I find the bass easier, it’s more single note playing, and I can simplify bass lines and they’ll still sound right. My fingers, over time, are doing less and less what I want them to do.

“But when I’m practicing and playing, I don’t think about it. That’s the therapy side. I get to go beyond the chronic pain my body is having – and the moment I put that guitar down, it all comes back.”