When faced with the Let’s Make A Deal scenario that so many bands are faced with before embarking on the creative process behind their second album (charge into difficult experimental territory behind Door #1? Stay the course with more of the same behind Door #2?), The Soft Pack apparently split up their four members and sent two through each door. What came out is Strapped, an album that is admirable in its fearlessness, comforting in its overall familiarity, and strangely charming in its missteps.
Before Strapped, the San Diego quartet could have easily been filed away with the legions of competent but ultimately unremarkable garage rock bands populating the United States during the last half decade. Sure, they stood out a little on 2010’s The Soft Pack in that they seemed to crib more from the bands of Rick Froberg as opposed to well worn copies of Nuggets, but the whole thing came off a little one-note. For Strapped, the band reportedly started with 80 sketches, which evolved into a 30-song pile, chipped away into the 12 tracks that make up the album. Everything was thrown in. Saxophones punctuate several tracks, while keyboards are slathered over others. “No” was apparently never an option.
This leads to an extremely fun first half, kicked off by the effervescent “Saratoga,” which takes the sound of the band’s debut, gives it a quick kick in the pants, and scribbles neon highlighter all over the guitar leads. “Second Look” is effortless sunset beach-candy, the moment when the ocean wind begins to pack a cool tinge. This skids into the slip-and-slide verses and horn blasts of “They Say,” before slowing down with the keyboard-driven “Tallboy.” “Bobby Brown” is an electro two-step R&B experiment that should absolutely not work, sounding at worst like a ploy to win over people bummed by MGMT’s psych-damaged turn on Congratulations, but ultimately being just too laid back to really hate.
Of course, despite the infectious enthusiasm, The Soft Pack sort of run out of ammo not long after making it into the album’s second half. “Ray’s Mistake” makes the right decision in sounding less like a sleepy Rick Froberg and more like a relaxed John Reis (Froberg’s Hot Snakes bandmate and Rocket From The Crypt leader). What follows skronky instrumental “Oxford Ave.” is a ultimately forgettable three track stretch that comes off as laid back in a non-complementary way. The audacious extended sax-and-guitar ending of sci-fi garage sprint “Captain Ace” acts as a little bit of course correction, but just slightly comes off like an act of a band overextending its reach.
That their kitchen-sink approach yielded as many wins as it did on Strapped bodes very well for The Soft Pack, oddly enough presenting a band that has proven it’s more than its record collection, and possesses a heretofore unseen amount of creative restlessness. Whether or not everything The Soft Pack does from here on out works is now secondary to the fact that at least what The Soft Pack does can now be considered interesting. This may be the greater victory.