Album of the Month: Chris Staples's 'American Soft'
Judging an album by its title usually produces as results as frivolous as judging a book by its cover, but there's something to be said about the name of Chris Staples's record American Soft. The Seattle singer-songwriter came up with the it using a random online album title generator, but it fits perfectly as softness is the record's pervasive feeling. Staples's soft-spoken lyrics and repeated acoustic guitar grooves float weightlessly like fluffy cottonwood seeds in the stillness of late summer air. It's the type of warm, inviting memory worth drifting back to repeatedly. After seeing an original Kickstarter-funded release in 2012, American Soft was rediscovered by Barsuk Records, which rereleased the album in August.
From the album's opening stanza on "Walking With a Stranger," Staples lays on a sad, sweet sense of longing: "Well it sure took forever, but the summer finally came / Felt like walking with a stranger, I didn't even know her name / Pretty soon I grow accustomed to her warm and sunny ways / Pretty soon I would forget about those frigid winter days /// If you just stay true, some good things are coming back to you." It's a genuinely Seattle sentiment that sets the tone for the tracks that follow. The remarkable thing about American Soft is how it's simultaneously a tranquil and catchy record. Things remain generally calm and there's not garish single moment, but the repetition of the guitar strumming and fingerpicking on tracks like "Grand Coulee Band," "Overpaid," and "Needle Park" sticks in the brain thanks to a understated yet shrewd sense of melody. Songs like "Black Tornado" are artfully hooky, with a ukulele riff that eschews any sense of nauseating cutesy twee offset by a propulsive clapped beat. The arrangements Staples employs emphasize his vocals and his rhythm guitar, while other instrumentation—be it drums, bass, cello, etc.—lurk a layer back to add subtle audible flavor to the mix.
Staples's lyrics are similarly more clever than they might seem at first pass. On the album closing "Early Bird Tavern," Staples spins the idea of jukebox singalongs into a a hushed lament by mashing up Tom Petty and Bon Jovi for a memorable chorus: "No you don't have to to live-a like a refugee / You don't have to to live-a like a refugee / You hold on to what we've got, it doesn't make a difference if we make it or not." Yes, it's cooptation, but it conveys the feeling of witty dolefulness that embodies American Soft.