by Ryan Snyder

— Bruce Piephoff

The fact that Greensboro folk scene pillar Bruce Piephoff has subsisted for what is now 22 albums is a victory for creativity over indifference in the absence of wider distinction, but also for his supporters. That he’s successfully crowdfunded his past two albums, 2011’s Still Looking Up at the Stars and this month’s Soft Soap Purrings, is proof enough that the longevity of a songwriter isn’t so much dependent upon breadth as it is depth.

On Soft Soap Purrings, a reference to the manipulative prowess of the average household feline companion when taken out of context, Piephoff mostly retreats from the concrete narrative modes of Clockwork and Still Looking Up at the Stars for more abstracted verse. The opening title track is a series of non sequiturs delivered against am unwavering melody. “I hear soft soap purrings from voices quivering with hate,” he leads off. Each line seems to encompass a basic condition: doubt, confusion, titillation, wonder. Loaded phrases abound, and some incite vibrant imagery while other just don’t make any sense. It’s a sharp curve on the first pitch, but it’s also reflective of the general sense of ambiguity that permeates his writing here.

Soft Soap Purrings is missing the anecdotal quality that colors many of his previous albums with historical presence. There’s no “When Terry Barry Ran for Mayor” from Slaughterhouse or “Better for My Eyes than Carrots” on Hobo Nickel, but instead he tries to imagine himself in the shoes of others. He’s a migrant farm working picking a guitar in between work on “Riding the Stream,” a tune that has appeared on at least three Piephoff albums. If it’s activism through empathy, what’s missing is urgency. Are you supposed to be angry at the plight? Stoked to action? He doesn’t seem convinced you should.

Perhaps it’s playing against his strength as a solo performer, but Piephoff’s compositions sometimes get bogged down by too many moving parts. The back-and-forth between Piephoff and California songwriter Claire Holley just doesn’t come together on “Maps On My Taps,” where they either garble their words or lose the tempo. Maybe it’s the song’s intent, and maybe it’s also just not a fully realized composition. Either way, it’s not too much to ask more out of one of Greensboro’s most literate and tenured songwriters than a piece that ends with the “Shave & A Haircut” riff.

Where this album is truly great, per his usual, are the more minimal spoken word pieces. Piephoff is deeply intriguing on “Dakota,” an open letter to old scene staple Dakota Joe. It’s like only being able to look at a painting under a microscope; there’s beauty in the minute detail, and it only makes you want to see his bigger picture that much more. !

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