The cruel oxymoron of the last year or so is that everything changed, but it also stayed the same. The contempt held by some for the well-being of others wasn’t formed by the pandemic, but we got a horrifying new perspective of it. Those with good intentions have had to wrestle with sacrificing a natural need for sociability for the greater good. Staying home somehow became exhausting, the kind where there’s not even a visible endpoint, and the results never feel remotely tangible.
Only part of take the cake, the debut album from Toronto lo-fi outfit PACKS, was written during quarantine, but, like many of its 90s forebears and contemporary cousins, its tone is pleasantly pensive. It seems probable that, even if they had been able to tour, PACKS would still put out a similar album. Although it doesn’t dig into self-examination far enough to be a knockout, its blend of slice-of-life accounts and internal monologuing make for a consistently likable – and frustratingly relatable – debut.
With its homemade sound and diaristic lyrics, you might initially figure PACKS to be a solo endeavor. You’d be partially correct, as what started as singer-songwriter Madeline Link’s brainchild has now been rounded out by guitarist Dexter Nash, bassist Noah O’Neil, and drummer Shane Hooper, and they have created a healthy buzz around Toronto with their live shows, and on the internet with their Bandcamp singles. Listening to Link and her droll delivery might remind you of an older cousin you idealized, not only for their taste but also for how they seemed so sure of themselves in their individuality, even if you eventually realized your naive perception.
Songwriting for the album was split between Link’s time living in Toronto in 2019, and later quarantining with her parents in the Ottawa suburbs. On the truncated “Hold My Hand”, one of the angstier accounts from The Six, Link is doored while riding her bike, with full garage rock riffs turning into moody noodling, like her adrenaline has to eventually morph back into malaise. Although the pandemic-era songs are defined by a slower pace, hardly any of the tracks are completely mellowed out. It’s a fairly constant calamity, only sometimes, like during the mid-song drum rolls of “Silvertongue” or on the reflective closer “U Can Wish All U Want”, Link can remind herself to take a breath.
Link’s songwriting is light on specifics (give or take an analogy involving a “Simpsons sunset”) but heavy on refrains. Her matter-of-fact delivery of “And that’s a promise” on breakup song “Clingfilm” and the delirious cries of “No, I won’t bite back” on “Holy Water” indicate the potential anthems in her future. She’s also especially skilled at portraying exhaustion without sounding like she’s on autopilot. On “Diving Giggling”, it’s like Link has mastered the art of simultaneous wincing and sighing. The rest of PACKS don’t slack either, offering traces of early Cloud Nothings and The Modern Lovers amidst their Gen X inspirations. Little moments also add up to a lot, like the simple keyboard motif on ode to empty consumerism “New TV”.
At times, take the cake feels like it’s at an ennui crossroads, trying to define listlessness while side-stepping its intentions. But how many artists have we seen hover around an emotional bullseye on their first album only to hit it on their next go-round? Even if take the cake doesn’t show PACKS’ full potential, it still gives us much to look forward to.