BUY THIS MUSIC

The stretch of I 40 from Chattanooga to Chapel Hill runs eight hours, the halfway point an Exxon station in Swannanoa, North Carolina, just a few miles east of Asheville in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. That gas station, which I always made my pit stop because of the Exxon card my Dad had given me for the road, marked the inevitable turning point. The spot that marked the change from leaving someplace behind to heading someplace in the distance. The moment regret became anticipation, and a heavy heart dropped its ballast in the men’s room and went down the far side of the mountain a light one. Maybe it’s no coincidence, then, I bought a trucker’s tape of Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee there one snowy January evening and acquainted myself with a wiser soul traveler.

I made that drive a lot between 1993 and 1997, and at some point I moved up from cassette tapes to a Sony Car Discman that, even with its groundbreaking motion-sensitive stabilizer controls, still had to rest on the passenger floorboard to keep the CD from skipping. The CD that was most often playing during those memorable solo hauls without a cell phone was undoubtedly The Sea and Cake’s sophomore album, Nassau. It was an album I worshipped. From my first listen in the cramped DJ booth at the campus radio station WXYC 89.3FM, it penetrated its charms straight to my heart. Somehow, its peculiar recipe of mad romanticism, dark, bracing guitar riffs crunching out into fuzz, and idiosyncratic vision radiated with my aesthetic in a total way. It was soft and lush, but brooding and doomed; it was synth-laden and effects-driven, but percussive and possessed of a driving rhythm and a loopy, scattershot sincerity. It fluttered and swooned, but it always flew. It was my kind of rock.

As a lazy, book-mad English major with some vital experiences but little hard-won wisdom, I filled many of those rides with long vague mental articulations of the career as a writer that lay ahead of me. As a college senior, I plotted out the scheme for the first screenplay I would ever write, and I fashioned it with Nassau as the soundtrack. I won’t belabor you here with an outline of the plot, but one important (to me) image involved a Delta 767 bobbing through sunny, turbulent skies, piercing a cloud, disappearing in the distance, to crash or land safely… all to the strains of “Lamont’s Lament.” In some ways, that image still typifies for me what I love in the Sea and Cake—a kind of unforced sanguine danger, as gentle and devastating as a far-off disaster.

It took me three more years to get that script written. By then I was a living a kind of naïve bohemian version of the Sixties all over again in a dissolute aerie high up in the Hollywood hills at the tail end of the Clinton administration. When I finished, I gave it a couple of serious-minded but cursory revisions, then I had a reading with actors in the living room of our pad, sure it was my ticket to fame and fortune. I was so green I’d written the thing out in Microsoft Works, making every little indention and character heading by hand. I didn’t even know they had such a thing as screenwriting software. Terminal Blues, it was called. I’ve still got a copy in my drawer, but I haven’t had the guts to ever re-read it.

This Saturday is my birthday, and I’ll be thirty-four. It’s been fifteen years since The Sea and Cake put out their self-titled first album, the same year they recorded my beloved Nassau. I plan to celebrate the occasion by escaping sunny L.A. and driving up the coast to San Francisco. The trip up the 101 N is also about 8 hours, and the magical halfway turning point is a little wine town called Paso Robles. We’ll stop there for the night, eat a good meal and my thoughts will turn to the Bay Bridge beckoning me on to the city of mists at the end of it. Somewhere along the way, I will listen to The Sea and Cake, but not Nassau. I’ll be listening to their latest album, Car Alarm.

There is something comforting and panic-inducing in following the continuing musical journey of the bands you grew up with. Not the bands you got into five years and three records later. Not the bands you heard and liked and went back and bought all their old albums. But bands that started on your watch, flourished alongside you, rocked you in concert and evolved to your satisfaction or chagrin. Such bands are special because, more than being just a name on a Facebook page, they are an integral part of your identity and your own journey in time. If their old albums now don’t sound as good as they did, maybe it was you who didn’t know good music. If their albums today sound tired and cheesy, maybe your choices are, too.

The Sea and Cake are unique for several reasons. One, they have a consistent sound that’s been definitive throughout the course of their fifteen year, eight record career: tight rhythm section of bassist Claridge and drummer McEntire; breathy, obtuse lyrics by Prekop, focused, alert guitar work by Prewitt, etc. But they’re constantly evolving with each album to push, stretch, refine and re-define their playing and their sound. In their refreshingly solid predictability, they are endlessly, constantly experimenting. The effect is something akin to a Japanese miniature bonsai garden— it is a question of scale and precision. When you train yourself to appreciate the subtle, discreet differences in a similar sonic pattern, you will open yourself up to a never-ending process of quietly dramatic changes.

This brings me to Point #2: For a band with such a “similar” sound, The Sea and Cake have wildly differing opinions of the relative successes of their material. I personally know people who got off the train after The Fawn (still one of my personal favorites). They just didn’t like the mannered, King Crimson-esque art-rock jazz leanings, a kind of controlled Francis Lai-Lalo Schifrin Sixties symphonic pop—Muzak as chamber music—of Oui. And the synth-electronic flourishes of One Bedroom got them dismissed as has-been makers of lo-fi dance music. Take a look for yourself at their discography reviews on allmusic.com. Several different critics all say that various records represent the high point of their career. Each names a different record as the best thing the band has done, each gently maligning the favorite of the former.

With Car Alarm, they tried to both return to their roots and a rock band and continue to experiment. After a long tour supporting their 2007 release, Everybody, they decided to instantly record a new album with the skill and momentum they had developed on the road. Inverting the typical pattern of recording songs in the studio and perfecting them on tour, the band used the latent energy, affinity and inspiration from live improv to quickly create an entirely new set of songs.

Dropped with little fanfare into stores on late 2008, Car Alarm is a totally unexpected delight. The band has never sounded more in sync. Not “stripped down,” but rather streamlined. The effect is like a happy, determined, quietly ferocious dolphin swimming fast and hard through tropical currents.

Every song seems keyed to McEntire’s drum kit. Claridge’s bass is so profoundly deep in the mix sometimes it's like a heartbeat, and the twin guitars of Prekop and Prewitt stretch out into new ground, the riffs seasoned and soulful, reminiscent of some of the work on Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky. At other times they drone and fragment into mantra-like diffusions that are suggestive and powerful, but focused. The songs, like the album as a whole, never wears out its welcome. It is a tight, fast, bristling business-like affair that tells its story walking. And, yes, it most definitely rocks.

But the flourishes, in nearly imperceptible ways that only come out with repeated listens, seem to modestly suggest a retrospective of their whole career. The Caribbean themes evoked with Nassau, the steel drum hooks, the marimbas from Oui that close out the album, making it a perfect soundtrack for a day and a night at the beach…

It’s good to realize that even if you don’t always agree with the choices your favorite band makes as they evolve over the years, you know they’ve never stopped trying to get better at what they do by staying interested in what they love.

On my birthday this year, as I drive beside the water listening to those shimmering hooks, speeding bass lines and those damn elusive marimbas, I’m going to ask if the same is true of myself.

THE SEA AND CAKE CAR ALARM, 2008, Thrill Jockey