The Sea and Cake

Car Alarm

(Thrill Jockey; 2008)

By David M. Goldstein | 8 November 2008

I’ve seen the Sea and Cake live exactly once, at an “Eating Club” on the Princeton University campus in 2000. It was essentially no different than sitting at home and listening to any one of their now eight albums; everyone in attendance smiled and swayed back and forth with subtle nods of the head. When it was over, in lieu of screaming for an encore, most of the audience seemed to say “ok, that was cool,” and went off to get drunk; I appreciated the fact that they played “Darkest Night” from The Biz (1995); Sam Prekop played the entire show with his eyes closed; Archer Prewitt was well dressed. It was a Sea and Cake show.

I like the Sea and Cake and own nearly all of their albums. Still, I’ve never understood the appeal of their live show, and the Princeton gig only reinforced this. It seems silly to pay twenty-five bucks for a pleasantly mellow evening when I can just listen at home, preferably in the bathtub (see also: every Dean Wareham band). But the recent release of Car Alarm has me rethinking this. One won’t mistake the Sea and Cake for, say, Battles, but Car Alarm contains a relative degree of rawness and rhythmic drive to suggest that it might actually be a kick to witness onstage. It bears the most resemblance to 2007’s excellent “back to basics” record Everybody, but even bests that album in terms of both an overabundance of hooks and rock (for these guys anyway) fun factor. Really, it’s probably their best album since The Biz.

To the uninitiated, distinguishing between Sea and Cake records is a Sisyphean task akin to differentiating AC/DC albums, and it’s not easy to formulate reasons on paper as to why one is worthier than another. They still traffic in lighter-than-air pop tunes beget by fantastic production and Sam Prekop’s oh-so breathy vocals; his is not so much a dominating voice as just another instrument in a busy mix that usually makes room for steel drums. Call it quality waiting room music for hipster dentists. Most critics’ knee-jerk reaction is to label them “pleasant” and “consistent” while offering minimal insight into the actual merits of their albums. They are, in simplest terms, easy.

But just like AC/DC’s recent Black Ice was goosed with that little extra to make it stand out amongst a uniform discography, Car Alarm has something of an X-factor at work, rendering it a must-purchase for fans of the Sea and Cake’s earlier records and an excellent place for neophytes to jump in. The lag time between Alarm and Everybody was an unusually brisk seventeen months, and the band’s rejuvenation is immediately evident on opener “Aerial,” a legitimate chunk of rock with an instantly memorable chorus, the latter not always a given with this band. Of course, being that it’s the Sea and Cake, the last forty-five seconds culminate in a thoroughly layered guitar duel evocative of classic shoegaze, but it’s their most energetic opener since Nassau‘s (1995) “Nature Boy” and establishes a level of quality that seldom dips. The percolating acoustic guitar flourishes of the following “A Fuller Moon” is a bit more in keeping with what the casual fan anticipates the Sea and Cake to sound like, down to the deftly mixed steel drums at the 2:30 mark: it too displays a lithe bounce and forward momentum that was absent from their early ’00s recordings.

John McEntire’s ridiculous production values remain. Quality headphones are required to pick up every sonic nuance, and the rather minimalist guitar solo on “New Schools” is arguably my favorite of the year if only because it sounds like a bowl-backed Ovation played through a shitty amp with the gain set at dangerous levels. There’s also a welcome emphasis on bubbly electronics featured in “Weekend” and “CMS Sequence,” calling to mind the better tracks on The Fawn (1997). And Car Alarm is probably the most excited I’ve been to put on a Sea and Cake record since. It’s already received far more spins than I would have anticipated prior to purchase, and in unconventional settings like poker games and long car rides, where the go-to choice is generally ’90s grunge. (Tangential thought: when was the last time you put on Superunknown [1995]? God damn.) With both Everybody and now Car Alarm, the Sea and Cake would appear to be in the midst of an inspiration streak unheard of since their first three albums, and we’re richer for it. Impressive for a quartet of mid-‘40s post-rockers on their eighth record.