The Sea Captains don't take themselves particularly seriously. They finish their debut 11-track album, Unfathomable, with the intentionally ironic "I'm Not Rock and Roll": "I know I won't get very far/I can't even play guitar." There are skronks and feedback squawks to make the point, a crooning verse, protestations that "I'm a fraud/Show's over/There's nothing to see/You can stop looking at me."
But the song actually rocks pretty hard, with a heavy three-strum guitar punctuation in the chorus and a near-grindcore open.
Like Pinkerton-era Weezer or the tongue-in-cheek silliness that sometimes finds its way into the Magnetic Fields, the Sea Captains walk the wobbly tightrope of both being interesting (maybe even important) songwriters and having a sense of humor. As someone who generally dislikes funny in his music, let me say this: the Sea Captains get to the other end of the tightrope without really even needing that big long stick to keep themselves balanced. They've got great taste in influences, an ear for when they're going overboard, and frontman Tim Collins delivers smart lyrics with an elegant panache.
Well, assuming you can deliver a line like "self-esteem is over-rated/so come on over here and get naked" with panache.
That's from the opening "Come on, Sugar," which alternates between '50s-style boy-band pop and hyper-aggressive pop punk, with a transition that features vocals heavily to the front and muted guitar in the back. There's even a sort of an upstroke bridge. And, like more than a few couplets here, Collins dials right down to the essence of things: "I don't want to have to take you out to dinner every goddamn day/I don't really have the money."
God, isn't that the truth?
People who've been around the Portland scene a bit will have a hard time not thinking of this as Adam Flaherty's band, of course. He has the success of his Noise Machine days, garnering him a Best Indie Rock BiMPy and widespread respect as a smart songwriter. In the same way that Flaherty got away with having a, let's say, non-traditional voice, because he was so smart and endearing, Collins gets similar leeway. He's not a first-rate vocalist, but he's not trying to be, and what he lacks in tone and pitch he mostly makes up for with a winsome disposition and emotion you can believe in. Still, there are some clunky falsettos here and there that'll make you wince.
Also, "Pretty Like a Cigarette," even if it's supposed to be a wink-wink kind of song, with a Morphine-style low-end drive and a cowbell, needs either a Mark Sandman or a Sully Erna to complete it, and I'm not sure that's a good thing.
In large part, though, you should find yourself so wrapped up in each song's new universe that you won't be thinking overly much about the details. "Evil (How Could You Be So)" is terrific, a set of three scenarios painted in front of martial drumming from long-time Flaherty rhythm-keeper Tom Ash and featuring a ripping guitar solo from Zack White. The girl is first Snidely Whiplash, then Dr. Frankenstein, then the Phantom of the Opera, with everything finishing in a swirl of strings.