The Soft Pack - Strapped
Remember The Muslims? You'd be forgiven if you didn't - that was the original name of this band. They were getting stick for it, so they decided to change it a few years ago. If you think that makes the Los Angeles-based quartet seem like, well, a soft pack, so be it, but two years ago they stepped out of the shadow of that name to produce a self-titled debut full of vigour and enthusiasm. It's been a while since we've heard from them - their biggest hit, up until this point, was the unquestionably brilliant 'Answer to Yourself' - but their garage rock foundations have been built on considerably, and they're older and wiser to boot. Strapped impossible not to like to some extent; it takes influence from pop-rock most of all, and the hooks that it contains are fantastic - anyone who's heard recent single 'Saratoga' will know what I'm talking about. With a propulsive bass riff that practically explodes from the speakers, it proves that The Soft Pack were just getting warmed up - this time, they definitely mean business.
The album's production shows how tight a unit the band have become, but Strapped is not just notable for its infectious music; quite a few songs find that frontman Matt Lamkin has improved in the lyrical department as well. "I don't know when, and I don't know how, but this place could use a change right now / It could come from the air or way deep down, but I'd be the first one out of town," he sings on 'Chinatown', a song that finds the band returning somewhat to their garage rock roots; another bass-led affair that has darker undertones than some of the material elsewhere. Another thing that has done the band quite a few favours is the appearance of a saxophone here and there. For example, it's set against squelching synths and a thrillingly discordant guitar riff on the riotous instrumental 'Oxford Ave', but it works, and brilliantly so at that. The band have said that they stuck with 30 songs for this album and narrowed that selection down to 12, "no matter how far out those songs were" - and they really seem to have stretched themselves. I can comfortably say they didn't have a song like the ominous-sounding 'Bobby Brown' in them two years ago.
Nor would they have had the guts to attempt something like the seven-minute album closer. Despite lulling listeners into a false sense of security with its nonchalant pop hooks and verse-chorus-verse structure, it eventually opens out into something which is far greater than the sum of its parts, the main riff becoming the basis for simultaneous sax and guitar improvisation, the song drawing to a close in somewhat of a jam-session style. Its spacey outro will divide existing fans, and confuse listeners who went into Strapped with the expectation that it would be merely a pleasant, hook-filled listen. It's so much more than that, and it's quite surprising how many of the risks The Soft Pack take actually pay off. It seems they've proved themselves to be a tough bunch after all.
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