The Soft Pack

Strapped

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The sound the Soft Pack forged on their self-titled debut album and in their work as the Muslims was so simple that it was inevitable that they'd branch out at some point. Strapped finds the band incorporating more elements -- particularly keyboards and saxophone -- into their music for a more polished and expansive sound. While the results are often nice, they're not always necessary; the contrast between Matt Lamkin's witty, somewhat insular thoughts and the band's spare, propulsive rock was a big part of their previous appeal. Strapped's flourishes end up enhancing and obstructing the Soft Pack's songs in about equal measure. The sax adds some extra new wave sheen to "Second Look," but the swirling organ on "Tallboy" gives a more reflective tinge than the rest of the song's garagey thrust. The Soft Pack go much farther afield on "Bobby Brown," where they dabble in sardonic synth pop that recalls the French Kicks' transformation from post-punkers to smooth pop purveyors. While this song and the noisy jazz-funk instrumental "Oxford Ave." work far better in practice than they do in theory, they also underscore just how liberally the band uses the keys and brass; by the time Strapped ends with the lengthy jam "Captain Ace," they don't seem all that special anymore. As it stands, the Soft Pack are still at their best when they churn out surfy, surly musings backed by rapid-fire beats, as they do on "Saratoga," the 99-percent anthem "They Say," and the garage-psych of "Ray's Mistake" (complete with backwards guitar). Compounding Strapped's oddness is the cluster of songs at the end that are so stripped-down that they feel almost unfinished, especially compared to the more elaborate and experimental tracks that came before; on "Bound to Fall," the emptiness surrounding Lamkin seems like it renders him too resigned to rail against his troubles. Strapped isn't a bad album so much as a strangely scattered one, revealing the Soft Pack caught between delivering what they're known for and what they might like to become.

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