Car Alarm is Chicago-based the Sea and Cake’s eighth full-length album since their self-titled debut on Thrill Jockey 14 years ago. Its prompt release after last year’s Everybody comes as a surprise to many fans who have come to know this band for often lengthy periods of hiatus, largely due to each of the members’ involvement in independent work. Drummer John McEntire plays with the revered post-rock group Tortoise, Eric Claridge is a painter and visual artist in addition to bassist, and Sam Prekop and Archer Prewitt have both released solo albums. Perhaps releasing two albums within such a short timeframe will bring more attention to a band that has never quite gotten the recognition they deserve.
A career as long as the Sea and Cake’s has seen its fair share of development. Early albums were marked by lush grooves and a largely jazz-based harmonic approach. The Biz felt looser and more raw. Later albums Oui and One Bedroom brought more incorporation of electronic sounds, while Everybody, released just last year, has been described as everything from accessible and inoffensive to organic and mischievous.
Despite this long career of innovation, it is interesting to note that the Sea and Cake have never changed labels or personnel. New albums have usually been met with the expectation that nothing will stray very far from the essential musical foundation that long-time listeners recognize as decidedly Sea and Cake.
Car Alarm is no different, and is void of any big surprises. It’s full of the group’s characteristic juxtaposition of subtle, organic beauty against precise rhythmic and technical work, exemplified by the gorgeous “Fuller Moon”. In the middle of this track, out of a tight, energetic groove arrives a subtly arresting sort of grace, echoing the lushness of their self-titled disc. We hear a similar complement of approaches on “Weekend”, where simple and detached acoustic guitar strums are eventually heard only faintly under bold, synthesized effects that greatly contrast the raw intro.
However, there are bits and pieces on this album that do drift substantially from the group’s typical sound. For example, the driving guitars on “Aerial” and “Car Alarm” will have the band’s toughest critics claiming they’ve strayed too far from post-rock into the mainstream. Indeed, these two cuts are the album’s weakest. And throughout the album, textures like drones, reverb, and synths are used even more extensively than on previous discs. The purely electronic bleeps and blips of the instrumental “CMS Sequence” feel out of place, both in the context of this album and of previous ones.
But even within these brief deviations of character, the entire disc is bound by a force that never ceases. Interplay between each of the instruments combines to create an entity with an energy of its own, undoubtedly the result of a band that has been creating music together for fifteen years. The group’s cohesiveness is often described as a machine, but in reality their precise ensemble playing feels more like the natural workings of a human body than the moving parts of some well-oiled contraption. Eric Claridge’s loping bass serves less as motor than as a heart for the album, pulsing through every track. While it occasionally changes pace or intensity, it never stops beating. When drums, guitars, synths, and Prekop’s dreamy vocals (as usual, effusing subtle, understated lyrics) are layered over the bass, downright mesmerizing textures emerge.
Some naysayers will undoubtedly claim that Car Alarm is simply more of the same. But this is hardly a criticism when discussing one of alternative music’s greatest bands, one that has filled a career with beautiful and invigorating music. Long-time fans should find plenty to love about this disc. For the uninitiated listener, there are earlier albums that might serve as a better introduction to the Sea and Cake than this one. But that shouldn’t prevent new listeners from experiencing this album — it simply means that they had better hurry to catch up with the rest of us, because this is a band that never seems to stay in one place for very long.