Lets get something out of the way. Yes, the Soft Pack was the band formerly known as the Muslims. It’s the exact same band. And no matter what you feel about the name change, its here to stay and has nothing to do with their San Diego beach-brand of easy garage punk. So get over it!
Besides, the name change seems to all make sense now. No way could they have released this album under their previous moniker. Their debut release was full of pissy, stripped-down rock ‘n’ roll that landed them somewhere between the Dead Boys, the Modern Lovers, and Chuck Berry with a surfboard. Layered with a thick helping of dry sarcasm and a who-the-fuck-cares attitude of kids growing up in a beach-side town, their debut was raw, catchy, and undeniable soundtrack music for summer days and road trips. Releasing it under the name “The Muslims” worked in that it hinted at the LP’s derisive posturing and purposeful lack of reverence to something so topically (and ridiculously) volatile. This is rock, man. Who cares if it’s PC, right?
On their second full-length from Kemado, though, the boys have grown up a bit and exposed a little more of their sensitivity. The rock isn’t gone, but just eased up a bit and accompanied by some of that Southern California sound more deliberately. This becomes immediately apparent on “Answer to Yourself”, where the crunching and steady building beat is garnished with a small guitar riff straight from Dick Dale’s garage. The previous track, “Down on Loving”, includes the heavy strums of an acoustic guitar behind the high-end major chords and some sweet backing vocals. Even the first line of the song hints at the region they originate from: “I see the sun in the sky and it looks so good.” Don’t be fooled, though. It’s not all summer fun. The upbeat sound of the track is darkly balanced by singer Mark Lamkin’s simple but perfectly cynical lyricism. By the one-minute mark a screeching guitar solos erupts like a stuttering Hot Rod over all the happiness, and we realize that the Soft Pack is messing with us. This isn’t smiles and sun, but congested, smog-filled insanity. It’s both the Southern California of yesteryear and being stuck in traffic at 5 PM on the freeway. This is a bleached-out madness.
The first half of the album mostly chugs along at this same paced, upbeat intensity, and picks up where their debut LP left off with a smidgen more polish. However, their sound begins to delve into uncharted territory for the four-piece with “Pull Out” — a track that cheekish-ly supports the secession of California. The driving guitar line is ripped right out of the surf-rock playbook, while Lamkin’s vocals sound precariously close to Rick Froberg from now-defunct San Diego rock band Hot Snakes, who also have a satirical ode to their home state (See: “Let It Come”). Followed by “More or Less”, a straight jangle-pop number, and the sinister-sounding tale of lost surfers in “Tides of Time”, it becomes fully apparent that the Soft Pack is less interested in following the well-worn path of garage rock revivalism. Instead, they maintain their ‘77-punk influences and mix it with a bit of sunshine and saltwater near flawlessly.
Lazily, you can lump them up with Wavves, the Smith-Westerns, Jay Reatard, or even the Strokes, along with a whole slew of other rock-bands keeping it lo-fi and simple. That would be unfair, though. These guys don’t have the same affinity for their distortion pedal as Nathan Williams, and they probably don’t have hair-stylists like Casablancas and co. If anything, the Soft Pack is filling in for the hole that the Hot Snakes left when they broke up. Even then, that would be ignoring their obvious ties to the locales from early ’60s beach pop to Agent Orange or even the surf-y fuck-off O.C. party band the Ziggins.
Most importantly though, the Soft Pack never sound cliché, but excitingly new, even if their influences can be clearly identified. Somewhere in a dense, urban LES neighborhood in NYC, art-kids are baffled by these guys’ sound and passing around this album on their iPod in abstract painting class. They don’t get it, though. Take a trip to San Diego, dude. These guys aren’t art-kids or fashionable rock revivalists — they’re just being themselves. Lucky for us.