Call them a janglier version of the Replacements, a more assertive Real Estate, a pillowy Ramones, the point is The Soft Pack have a number of bases for comparison. Not that that is something that really seems to cross their minds – and besides, it’s nothing that good, quality songwriting can’t overcome anyways. True to form, the San Diego startups formerly known as The Muslims have followed up their strong self-titled 2010 debut with another batch of clean, friendly, sun-kissed pop tunes.
The Soft Pack produced Strapped themselves, and handpicked its dozen songs from a list of about eighty candidates. Nine of its twelve tracks fall short of the three-minute mark. Strapped is at its finest when it’s at its fastest, where one barely has time to take a breath, let alone make objections or quibbles. When things slow down and open up however, the limitations of the band’s current compositional format begin to surface. “Bobby Brown” embraces Fine Young Cannibals’ guitar tones and synthlines from the likes of The Spoons. It refuses itself the much-needed fervor that the Soft Pack apparently needs to maintain to successfully get their point across. This isn’t the straight up pop-rock affair that their debut was; there are numerous additions to the arrangements, horns, synths and extra pedal effects, to name a couple.
Yet there are points where all of this gussying feels not just needless, but also senseless. Experimentation for the sake of experimentation. Without a trumpet, “Second Look” would be a straight-laced jammer, and seeing as how it does feel somewhat tacked on, that might almost be preferable. Tracks like the immeasurably tight “They Say” are clearly what the Soft Pack were made to play.
Strapped can essentially be divided into two distinct sections. The likes of “Bobby Brown,” “Bound to Fall” or seven-minute slog “Captain Ace,” which emulates REM-indebted guitar prettiness, are in conflict with the record’s jumpier numbers. On “Saratoga,” crisp guitar and bass clamber over one another for the high ground, while “Chinatown” takes the lucid simplicity of the refrain “You will find me in the dark,” and pulls out something decidedly superior to the sum of its parts.
Guitarists Matt Lamkin and Matty McLoughlin maintain a garage-y looseness, even when they’re going so fast that the music becomes a blur. The band’s love for these sort of antics pops up on “Ray’s Mistake,” a classic 60’s dancehall romp, and again on the mischievous “Head On Ice.” The Soft Pack’s knack for a no-tassels hook is what ends up making Strapped worthwhile, and it works best when they tighten the screws and keep it concise.