The past is a strange thing; a weird ethereal mess half made of real life events, and half fabricated by the vivid imaginings of the stories we tell ourselves about what went down and what it all meant. Chris Staples’ new album American Soft, delves heavily into seeming events of his own past using his tempered slightly raspy vocals, and adept acoustic guitar skills to become the sonic embodiment of how we all can feel about the past sometimes: somber yet hopeful.
The first semblances of Staples’ attraction to the past are his references to the music of his youth. This is shown by the title of track four “Dark Side of The Moon” and his borrowing of lyrics from both Tom Petty’s “Refugee” and Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” for his song “Early Bird Tavern”. However, despite his reverence of the past Staples’ sound is modern, and uniquely all his own without the disingenuous feeling of trying to ‘be’ one particular thing. For instance, “Hold onto Something” begins with a lazery synth melody while it defines the sound of the song it does not detract from Staples’ soft subdued vocals or feel like a gimmicky way to bring his acoustic sensibilities to a modern audience; it just feels right.
While the dominating feeling on this album is a melancholy that rivals Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow you Into the Dark,” there are some tracks on American Soft that are downright fun. For example, take the popiest sounding track of the album “Black Tornado” which combines an intoxicating ukulele with rhythmic claps, staccato guitar solos, and bass synth accompaniment for a light song that is impossible not to dance to. Add the the cheeky lyrics “Would I ever lie to you?/of course I would, of course I would” found on the upbeat 50s inspired rock track “Needle Park” both of which prevent this album from having too narrow of a focus on the glum and regretful aspect of reminiscing about the past.
Last, worth noting is just how damn well made this album is; the production is subtle in its mastery. Each choice of instrumentation is vital and complex in its own right, but it never feels like too much. Each song is accompanied by the perfect mellow synth, technical yet understated drum beat, or crisply distorted guitar, giving this album much more depth than your typical solo acoustic folk experience. All the elements of the sound are so seamlessly integrated that they are easy to overlook until you come across the instrumental track “Wurlitzer” whose intricate drum work, and ambient melodies seem to be Staples’ way of pulling back the curtain to reveal the delicate cogs and gears that allow for his music to have the lasting impact it does.
American Soft feels instantly nostalgic, but it’s so rich even after seven or eight listens (I’ve lost count honestly) it still sounds refreshing and new. Look forward to being taken on a revealing and intimate walk through the ambiguities of the past when Barsuk Records releases Chris Staples’ American Soft on August 12th, 2014.
This review has been brought to you by DJames. Listen to his show Left of Center Tuesdays at 6pm starting in September on KSSU