Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Sea and Cake - Car Alarm (***1/2)

If curiosity killed the cat, then surely consistency will kill the indie band, right? In this day and age when a masterpiece is expected every time out from even the most obscure of bands, it can be more than a little difficult to get excited about a band like the Sea and Cake, who have been releasing good to very good records for well over a decade now but don't have that one record that sits on every serious record collector's shelf. The band's eighth and newest album, Car Alarm, can get filed into the latter category though as it has unexpectedly nudged it's way into the band's top 2-3 records, maybe even equaling the exquisite Nassau from 1995.

At first blush, the title Car Alarm may seem rather dull, especially considering the band's run of evocatively titled records such as The Fawn and Oui. However, from the opening 80s college rock inspired riff, Car Alarm announces itself as the perfect title for the sounds contained within it's 12 tracks, as this is easily the band's most propulsive and, for lack of a better word, rock album to date. Coming a couple years after the more pop oriented Everybody, it was essential for Car Alarm to differentiate itself from the Sea and Cake's past records, which all had a tendency to blur together in a meld of clean guitar lines and softly executed drum patterns. Car Alarm's busier and more head-long tracks, such as the aforementioned "Aerial" and the title track, have the distinct feel of a bustling city life (in this case probably Chicago), and on the whole individual tracks tend to stand out from the pack, whereas past records tended to feel greater than the some of their parts.

This consistently is no doubt due to the fact that the four core members of the band are still in tact, with ex-Shrimp Boat members Sam Prekop and Eric Claridge joined by Tortoise's John McEntire and scene stalwart Archer Prewitt. Their lineup still reads like a who's who of Chicago post-rock, but most of the music made under the Sea and Cake banner stands outside of the genre, despite owing much to the ambient drift and long-simmering melodies most closely associated with the genre. McEntire, again working double duty as producer, has once again constructed a record of shimmering angles and pillow soft sounds. It helps of course when you have the inimitable Sam Prekop on hand to lend his delicate voice to the proceedings, and despite the sometimes heavier sounds of the band here, he continues to soothe with his lush register and melody-forming turns of phrase.

So yeah, it still sounds exactly like the Sea and Cake, yet maybe my memory is lagging because I don't ever remember the band leaning so heavily on electronics on past albums as they do here. They've always been there since The Fawn, but subtly so, cushioning tracks rather than propelling them. On Car Alarm though, electronics seem to come to fore much more often, with both "CMS Sequence" and "Weekend" in particular both sounding pleasantly inorganic. For a band that is so often thought of as stridently human and pure of sound, these few moments go a long way toward expanding an established formula. Car Alarm is easily the most diverse record the band has made since it's mid-90s heyday, and highlights abound (I haven't even mentioned the fantastic "Window Sills", which is probably the best single track on Car Alarm), making this the most rewarding Sea and Cake record for newcomers and die-hards alike.

Highlights: "Aerial", "A Fuller Moon", "Car Alarm", "Window Sills"

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