From their inception in the mid-1990s, English guitar band Seafood has always seemed out of step with the major trends dominating the alternative music scene in their native country. Unabashedly American in outlook, their scuzzy, energetic take on underground rock first arrived at a time when British music was dominated by the “Brit-pop” sound, which was itself a reaction against the earlier dominance of “grunge.” Though they hardly made any significant waves, they were a reliably incandescent live act, channeling the arty guitar rock of Sonic Youth into catchy, bite-sized chunks.
A decade on, their fourth album Paper Crown King arrives against a background of desperate illness and departures from the original line-up (bassist Kevin Hendrick left after recording was finished). Singer David Line was hospitalized for 10 months and underwent surgery several times to deal with a debilitating lung condition. Eventually, he says, “doctors had to superglue my lung into my chest”. In light of this it’s amazing this record even exists at all. Lyrically the specter of serious illness, even death, looms large throughout the record; that is to be expected in the circumstances. Also understandable is the subdued nature of Line’s vocals, which once used to occasionally gnash and shriek but are now much quieter. What is most disappointing, however, is the syrupy production that softens out any ‘edges’ the band might have possessed, resulting in a sound more akin to Coldplay, at times, than any of the band’s early and noisier touchstones. It almost seems that after a decade of doing things their way, of being uncompromising and incongruous, they have decided to move closer to the mainstream for one final chance of making it big. Hence this slick, inoffensive album which seems to audibly strain for an epic sound that might result in a breakthrough record.
These ambitions are made crystal clear on “Signal Sparks”, which sounds initially like Ian McCulloch singing something from Parachutes. Building slowly and quietly from a soft lullaby tune played on a lone guitar, it morphs into a big, anthemic, behemoth of a song with expansive synth lines and crashing chords that sound better suited for playing live in some “enormo-dome,” rather than the sweaty indie dives of yore. There is no doubting the emotion underpinning the song as Line sings, “There’s nothing to be scared of / there’s nothing here to fear” before launching into the affirmative repetition of “just breathe” that comprises the chorus; this is, after all, a man who has recently undergone major surgery. It’s just a shame that the music that carries these sentiments is so overblown that it ends up sounding crass and heavy-handed. I simply cannot imagine fans of their previous edgy sound going for this at all. I certainly didn’t.
It’s difficult to really dislike many of the tunes here as much as it’s also difficult to really like them. These guys are not serious unit shifters: they’re a struggling guitar band trying to make ends meet after a decade of failing to really break through. “Awkward Ghost” is a moving acoustic ballad with Line, at times, sounding uncannily like Thom Yorke circa The Bends, as he sings, “The sun has set and the dark is close and I’m lying on the floor / writing words for someone I no longer know.” Opener “Let’s Talk” is an agreeable hybrid of Throwing Muses and Placebo that displays some of their old muscle. On the languid “How You Gonna Live Without Me”, vocal duties are taken over admirably by drummer Caroline Banks, but then an atrocious 1980s saxophone solo barges in like something from the soundtrack to Lethal Weapon and ruins everything. “Paper Crown King” is another big song which reprises the Coldplay-isms, the epic chorus, the chiming guitars of “Signal Sparks”. Granted, most of these songs are not that bad; they’re just not particularly great.
Seafood have undoubtedly moved on from their early sound; that’s fine, that’s what bands are supposed to do. But that progression has been made at the expense of many of the qualities that made them distinct and interesting in the first place. Their dogged insistence on ploughing their own jagged, punky furrow has been replaced by a maturity and gloss that sees them slipping yet further into the dark waters of irrelevance and obsolescence. Starkly put, this is simply an unnecessary album. Musically it has nothing new to say and frequently it teeters on the edge of cheesiness and cliché. When I first saw them live seven years ago they were supporting the Fall, and in terms of energy and noise, they pretty much blew the headline act away. I suspect that if Mark E. Smith heard the first minute of “Signal Sparks” filtering through his dressing room door today, he’d march out on stage and pull the plug. I have the utmost respect for Line and Co. continuing to record in the face of considerable adversity. But, sadly, this is just an average record, pleasant at times but utterly bereft of innovation and invention, though the emotions that drive it are genuine enough.