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Album review

Back to California where it's warm: The Soft Pack's self-titled debut delivers nostalgia, delight

As rock and roll rapidly approaches retirement age, the search for novelty that once drove the music business has given way to a preoccupation with ancestry. Instead of trying to describe how a record sounds, critics and fans alike are often content to list the influences it reveals.

But in the case of an album like The Soft Pack's full-length debut, such name dropping can be counterproductive. Yes, these Southern Californians -- Matt Lamkin, Matty McCloughlin, David Lantzman, and Brian Hill -- have made a record that pays respects to their home's rich punk heritage. Yes, they hearken back to the garage bands of the 1960s as well.

Given the outward simplicity of The Soft Pack's songs, their reliance on a classic three-chord formula, it's hard not to hear the echo of previous generations of California punks and popsters in their work.

But no recipe — a little Dick Dale, some Rocket From the Crypt, a healthy dose of the Vaselines, an unexpected dash of the Beach Boys — is going to indicate whether the music works or not. And The Soft Pack works wonders.

Discard bins, whether brick-and-mortar or electronic, are full of music that failed to transcend outright mimicry. What sets the best bands apart is their facility for conjuring ancestral spirits without ever turning into priests.

In The Soft Pack's case, this means integrating disparate inspirations into something that sounds like it was cut from whole cloth. "Down On Loving" manages to yoke the propulsive force of post-hardcore to the ramshackle beauties of Teenage Fanclub. "Pull Out" fuses Nuggets-worthy guitar and organ parts with a sinewy bass line straight out of Fugazi.

"Mexico," the most surprising track on the album, takes a detour into the dub territory that Sublime worked so effectively, but with vocals that recall the blue-eyed soul of mid-1960s Britain.

Some of the credit for this seamless blending goes to the sonic textures the band captured with the help of producer Eli Janney, a member of the influential alternative band Girls Against Boys. As producer and engineer, Janney was responsible for some of the best albums of the 80s/90s D.C. punk movement, including records by Shudder to Think and Nation of Ulysses.  Janney's more recent work bears noting as well, as he has shifted into a more melodic sensibility, working with artists like Wilco, Ryan Adams, Jet and Dashboard Confessional.

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Few contemporary albums communicate such a dated ambience. But the songwriting plays a huge role. The longer you listen, the more subtleties emerge from the mix.


Charlie Bertsch has been based in Tucson since 2000. He has written about music, film and books for a variety of publications, including The Oxford American, Zeek, Tikkun, Phoenix New Times and the pioneering internet publication Bad Subjects: Political Education For Everyday Life, which he helped to found back in 1992. He welcomes your feedback.

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On the Web

The Soft Pack website

Kemado Records