[26 November 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The Soft Pack, if you follow their artwork and their vibe, feel like an extension of that now seemingly far away movement we called chillwave. They seem perpetually laid back, perpetually nostalgic (while possibly lounging on the beach) and their sound has a distinct, late-afternoon haze to it. And yet, what make the Soft Pack so formidable on their debut was, unlike those chillwave bands, the Soft Pack liked rock music, liked thick hooks, liked thumping drums. They liked to party instead of forlornly looking back on a party that happened, like, yesterday.
Strapped, the band’s follow-up seems both determined to break new ground and most capable when it follows the old script. Opener “Saratoga”, with its jangling, distorted guitars ringing out and slicing hooks is a power-pop delight, especially with all the growling working against the gauzy vocals of frontman Matt Lamkin. It’s song that simultaneously looks back and delivers of-the-moment energy. The equally solid “Chinatown” clears Lamkin’s voice a bit, and lets him belt it out a little more, as he assures us “you will find me in the dark” while the guitars seem to be the ones casting long shadows around him. “They Say” strips the hooks down to the bone, preferring brittle leads over power-chord crunch, but though it skews the band’s sound towards pop and away from rock, it works mostly because the drums are at their most lively and the chorus here, which brings those crunching guitars back in, is the band at its most infectious.
The Soft Pack is on point at these moments because it tempers its slacker core with more vital energy. It never slips into the self-indulgent, navel-gazing vibe of lesser, but equally backward-looking, nostalgia-heavy music. Strapped in these moments doesn’t repeat the successes of The Soft Pack so much as it hones them into sharper tones, tighter hooks, all around better songs.
Around these moments, though, we have songs that stretch out—either sonically or in tempo—and lose the band’s charm and energetic control. The neon-funk-lite of “Bobby Brown” feels, first of all, oddly fleeting and baseless when pitted against better rock songs, and it also is bound to remind you of the breakdown on “99 Luftballoons”. “Bound to Fall” isn’t exactly an experiment, but its shift in mood feels a half-beat too slow and, with Lamkin’s vocals treated with echo on the edges and deadpan, he sounds flat more than affectingly detached. “Captain Ace” is a rollicking rock number that just unravels into its own self-indulgences, including ‘80s-soundtrack airy keyboards all over the place and a formless saxophone vamp in the song’s closing minutes. Even lead single “Tallboy”, which starts out decently enough, overplays its use of a big horn section, runs too slow for its own good, so that when Lamkin spells out “T-A-L-L-B-O-why should I try when I’ll just fall behind?” it sounds less like worry and more like sloth.
Strapped is an album that seems to both highlight the Soft Pack’s strengths and glaringly reveal their limitations to this point. It’s good that the band is pushing into new territory, but most of it leans towards the kind of soft-rock that doesn’t sound like it came from the ‘80s so much as it sounds like what we wanted the ‘80s to sound like (this type of nostalgia is rampant in music right now, by the way). As a result, they slow down their energy, they water down their potent hooks, and generally play against their strengths. Which is too bad, because the other half of this record is catchy as hell.