CD Review of Smile When You’re Alone by This Car Up
Recommended if you like
Death Cab for Cutie, Sonic Youth, Tortoise
Label
self-released
This Car Up:
Smile When You’re Alone

Reviewed by Michael Fortes

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T
his Car Up is yet another in a long line of indie bands going the truly independent route by releasing their music without the help of a record label. The kind of music they play – a moody, straight-faced mixture of Sonic Youth-like guitar layers, humorless vocals recalling Beck’s more depressed moments, the pop-lite of Death Cab for Cutie, and the modest occasional dash of vibraphone and brass a la early Tortoise records – lends itself well to an audience that pledges more allegiance to bands themselves than the organized businesses that have typically provided varying levels of support to such bands. Their press sheet is only touting recent coverage from low-key outlets like the Boston Phoenix independent weekly, Emerson College’s radio station WERS, and the Northeast division of Performer, the well-respected and decidedly indie-centric trade magazine. How does a band like This Car Up position itself to keep going without starving to death?

Taking a look at the photo of the group included with their one-sheet bio, the guys look like they know how to have a good time. They’re smiling, joking around with stuffed animals, and generally looking like a bunch of truly likeable goofs. Without having seen the photo, one would never pick up on this facet of their personalities simply by listening to the music. “Emma,” one of the catchiest, most memorable tunes on their debut album, Smile When You’re Alone, carries the no-nonsense chorus “Don’t waste my time / Whenever it is through / When everything is wrong / They will turn to you.” This isn’t fun and games, nor is the song’s declaration in the bridge, “love is a lie.” This is streamlined angst, and it could go a longer way with more force in the vocals.

The low-key, boy-in-the-corner approach actually fits “Shiny Objects” even better, and the vocals pick up some welcome intensity in the chorus. Musically, the song is also one of the most impressive, with its trebly bass and dreamy, layered guitar midsection, stretching the song out to almost seven glorious minutes. 

There’s a lingering sense that, though the record sounds impressive enough – it was recorded at the venerable Inner Ear Studios, renowned in the D.C. area for being the spot where many near-legendary records by Fugazi, Rites of Spring, Q and not U, and other Dischord artists, were recorded – the real power of the music is going to be felt live on stage. The challenge for This Car Up, just like it is for New England’s The Brother Kite, Portlandites Chris Robley and Rachel Taylor Brown, and many other indies across the country, will be to push their message beyond their immediate region or coast. Fuel prices are confining many bands to even smaller touring areas. Standing out among the heavy competition that the online world makes loud and clear to us every minute will only be a greater challenge because of it.

Clearly, this reviewer heard something in them that differentiates them from the latest chart-toppers and the bevy of local bands making noise at the clubs down the street. It could be nostalgia for those East Coast sounds that provided sweet relief through the ‘90s, or the generally favorable sound of trebly bass, or the unassuming way in which the keyboards provide a bed of sound and never overpower the record. Whatever it is, This Car Up has made a promising start. Growth and development will be their best friends, maintaining a streak of unpredictability will carry them across the coasts, and striking a balance between pop smarts and artful non-traditional song structures – their greatest strength as of now – will give them longevity. Meanwhile, Smile When You’re Alone is still one heck of an indie rock record to spin through the summer.

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