Douglas Martin heard The Sandwitches can make one hell of a Grilled Cheese.
The time has come. December. The month out of the year where people who get paid (and sometimes not) to think too much about music have to bang their collective and individual heads against their desks and try to put a bunch of records, tapes, CD’s, and mp3s into some sort of contextual framework, trying to either figure out What It All Means or provide a handy little consumer’s guide for their readers. With so much being focused on what happened this year, the merits of work from last year sometimes get overlooked in the process, thus pushing things that were already sort of overlooked last year even farther down the line.
Last fall, San Francisco’s The Sandwitches released How to Make Ambient Sadcake, a pretty great record carried by immensely strong songwriting that virtually nobody (except Gorilla vs. Bear, naturally) paid attention to. Formed by Heidi Alexander and Grace Cooper, former backing vocalists for The Fresh & Onlys, The Sandwitches mine from the same early-period of rock-and-roll as the band they sprang from, but with much different source material. Whereas Tim Cohen and crew craft a kaleidoscopic version of garage rock dating from the fifties to the seventies, Alexander and Cooper take their influence from ragtime country, rockabilly and steampunk, three genres that won’t exactly set the blog aggregators on fire, unless Noah Lennox suddenly binges on Waylon Jennings records.
The record starts off with an incredible four-track run, starting with the shuffling “Back to the Sea” and the subtle-but-irresistible “Tarantula Arms,” both adeptly recalling 50’s rock from the mid-South. The two songwriters go into darker territory with the following two songs, arguably the album’s best. “The Revisionist” is carried by the theme of devotion, which pops up frequently on the album, a lacerating twang in the way the girls sing, “My man answers to no one/Says, ‘Woman, why you always cryin’?’” “Stranger’s Shadow,” the album’s clear highlight, takes countrified chords and uses them as the foundation of an endlessly replayable tune about a cheating lover getting tongue-tied and backtracking on his lies, with the chorus emphatically stating, “Don’t you bring her around me,” ready for a brawl (Brooke Valentine style) and looking for somebody to hold her earrings.
In spite of “Relax at the Beach” predating indie-rock’s obsession with vintage swimsuits and volleyball in the sand by a few months, the feel of the song is as laidback as the song’s title, keeping things in line with the fluidity of the album instead of trend-hopping. “Kiss Your Feet” is bolstered by lyrics that match its minor-key gloom, a song with themes of subservience and suffocation being sung nearly in the same breath.
How to Make Ambient Sadcake is a cohesive stunner of a debut record which shows the lyrical and musical prowess of a group still finding their names under the marquees lit up with lesser names. Here’s hoping that in 2011, the world actually catches up to their insane amount of promise.