The Sea and Cake
Car Alarm
Thrill Jockey

Courtesy of Thrill Jockey

3 out of 5 Stars

The Sea and Cake’s breezy brand of poppy post-rock, at its narcotic best, can be like enjoying a piece of cake by the seaside. Too often on Car Alarm, though, the songs are more like pieces of cake that have been dunked in seawater: a little bit mushy.

Car Alarm is an anomaly. On its surface, it’s the indie equivalent of a Jack Johnson record: light and airy without much nutritional value. But to perked-up ears, the song structures are more like seven-layer cakes than pancakes. Upon multiple listens, these deceptively harmless pop nuggets unveil themselves as delicately layered subversions of the verse-chorus-verse mold.

Bopping along on a bubbly groove and sprinkled with jangly guitars, “Window Sills” could be a dead ringer for a Goo Goo Dolls song if it weren’t for its introspective tangents. Album opener “Aerial” feels like a rehash of the million radio-friendly fist-pumping anthems that have come before it, but a discerning ear can sift out the elastic bassline and dynamic interweave of guitars. The song finally stretches its arms at the end, slip-sliding into an effervescent jam.

“Weekend” finds the band throwing the textbook out the window (and probably directly into John Mayer’s face). The song starts out serenely with a mild polyrhythm of acoustic strumming and techno-inflected keys. It then explodes into a frenzied breakbeat of arpeggioed synth squeaks and mathy open hi-hat pummeling. It’s the freshest track on the album by a long shot.

There’s no question that The Sea and Cake is a talented group of musicians. Drummer John McEntire (the mastermind behind Tortoise) lends the fluffy songs some welcome backbone with his deviously syncopated drumbeats, and vocalist Sam Prekop is clearly a gifted songwriter, peppering the tracks with subtle touches. The issue here is that the members are so snug in their comfort zones that the carefree vibe the songs attempt to radiate can easily be mistaken for the sound of a band not caring all that much.

Prekop’s wispy vocals certainly don’t do anything to stir up Car Alarm‘s drowsy feel. Sometimes, as on the lilting “On a Letter,” the approach comes off as appropriately precious, making for music that’s warm and cozy. More often than not, though, his breathy delivery makes the songs sound more similar than they actually are. While his melodies may not all be the same, Prekop’s unvarying faux-whisper homogenizes them. The vocals sound aimless when they should sound dreamy, giving the album an amorphously soggy feel, especially toward the end.

What makes Car Alarm so puzzling is that, in a broadly over-generalizing sense, it’s for absolutely nobody. It’s likely too intricate and subtle for the average listener to appreciate, and too generic-sounding for the post-rock or indie aficionado to really sink their teeth into. The album manages to be both complex and somewhat of a snooze-fest. While the music is lushly arranged and melodically sound, it fails to consistently engage. Hopefully next time around the band can bake a cake that tastes as good as it looks.

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