The hard truth is, no matter how many albums we review each year, there are always countless releases that end up overlooked. That’s why, this month, we’re bringing back our
No Album Left Behind
series, in which the Paste Music team has the chance to circle back to their favorite underrated records of 2021 and sing their praises.
Life doesn’t always grant people second acts, but Irish four-piece Soda Blonde are living proof to the contrary. All four band members—Faye O’Rourke (vocals, guitar), Dylan Lynch (drums, percussion, vocals), Adam O’Regan (guitar, bass, piano, synthesizer, vocals) and Donagh Seaver O’Leary (bass, vocals)—previously gained international recognition as the alt-rock outfit Little Green Cars before breaking up in 2019. Their sound has changed, trading out folk influences for sleek pop, but their talent has not. Soda Blonde’s debut album Small Talk is a criminally underrated 2021 release.
Steeped in sadness, the record focuses on the band members’ 20s, a time that proves more melancholic than people remember through their rose-colored glasses—especially when you’re going through them amid a pandemic. The first track, “Tiny Darkness,” lures the listener in with melodic piano before the devastating lyrics and swelling strings can take hold. “It takes everything to begin again,” O’Rourke laments, a fitting introduction for a band who’ve found a new form. She’s refreshingly unafraid of airing her insecurities, especially regarding the music industry: “They said I could be a star / But I bent out of my shape / I’m like a washed-up TV host / Watching back old tapes.”
Throughout the self-produced record, the group’s cohesion and control over musical tension make song after song shine. The first five tracks of Small Talk make for a particularly wonderful run. “The Dark Trapeze’’ captures the rollercoaster of identity ridden when you’re still not quite sure who you are; “I’m a seed,” O’Rourke begins, later grandiosely declaring herself “a picture in a gallery from 1893” and then, more humbly, “a bottle of beer.” “In the Heat of the Night’’ smolders with arched, Fleetwood Mac-like guitar. O’Rourke’s singular, stratospheric voice transforms a seemingly simple lyric like “You’re telling me to calm down” into a dramatic challenge as she relishes “the thrill of the fight,” as she said in a press release. Clanging, metallic percussion builds on “Swimming Through the Night” before a dreamy release on the chorus, and “Terrible Hands” likewise benefits from the band’s pulsating, well-directed energy.
The smallest details show just how well the members of Soda Blonde work together as a unit. The arrangement of “Holy Roses” drives home the track’s message of how small slights can build up to an overwhelming anger, the pre-chorus soft and measured until O’Rourke’s vocals take center stage on the refrain. O’Regan’s mixing skills elevate “Small Talk,” which enters on a muffled, distant synth that’s later echoed on the chorus. Soda Blonde are clearly fans of symmetry; a clip of John Wayne talking about Ireland features on “Terrible Hands,” a fun nod to Little Green Cars’ hit “The John Wayne.”
Not every song quite hits the mark; ”I Still Have Feelings For You” is stripped back and comparatively not as engaging as the other songs. Even in these moments, though, O’Rourke’s emotional delivery keeps the listener hanging on her every word. Her voice often soars above the instrumentals, angelic and untouchable, but the moments she goes deadpan also land, as heard on “Champion of My Time.”
The record comes full circle with the closer “Choices.” Though not quite as aurally stirring as “Tiny Darkness,” O’Rourke effectively shows how she’s grown, realizing her own agency and essentially having a “main character” moment. “Maybe I should let you make my choices,” she expresses at the start of the song, until she decides, “I will never let you make my choices.” After her floundering on “Tiny Darkness” (“This is all so complicated / Maybe I should have got a degree,” she admits on the opener), O’Rourke becomes both the hero and the author of her own story.
Whether you’re in your 20s or looking back on them, you’ll likely find that Small Talk is a yearning, wistful record. There’s no beating around the bush here; Soda Blonde are an exciting alt-pop act who should not be overlooked.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.