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The Sea and Cake
- A brief guide to ...

Somewhere between passion and precision lies a holy ground of musicianship where life is injected into staid instruments and arrangements, yet excess is reined in by impeccable judgement. Chicago's The Sea and Cake have, over the course of five albums, set up camp in this holy ground and don't look set to budge.

I
coverpic What was initially a one-off project for Sam Prekop (vocals, guitar), John McEntire (drums, vibes, electronics), Archer Prewitt (guitar, keyboards) and Eric Claridge (bass) has now become a vehicle for perfect, dreamy jazz-pop. Their eponymous 1993 debut laid the blueprint for the basic sound - chiming guitars, melodious bass, crisp drumming, lazy, cool vocals - that has been coloured in imaginatively ever since. The likes of Jacking the Ball and Showboat Angel are spritely, catchy songs that sit comfortably alongside the sloppy wah-wah groove of Calubra Cut or the end-of-the-evening wind-down of Lost in Autumn. Concisely produced by Brad Wood and set off beautifully by one of the funniest album covers I've seen - a cartoon of two arms feeling a man's enormous afro of furry animals - The Sea and Cake is a neat, enjoyable record, and a good place to start.

II
coverpic Nassau (1994) sees John McEntire assume production duties to guide the band through their finest and most diverse range of songs to date. More wayward, exploratory and yearning than their other efforts, the album contains the utterly sublime Parasol, guitars and cellos sighing and crying as ghostly percussion resonates in the distance. One of their best songs, Parasol manages to pull off the magical Sea and Cake trick of walking a tightrope line between hope and doubt, always threatening to fall apart yet holding it together with style. How they pull if off so often is amazing: if you can listen to the beginning of 'The World is Against You' without skipping back to try and work out exactly how they manage to synchronise all those gorgeous elements then you're stronger than I am. More than on any other Sea and Cake record (bar, perhaps, Oui), the band seem focused and purposeful, almost enraged, producing songs of sparkling vitality yet shadowed with disillusionment.

III
coverpic While Nassau saw the band stretching in different directions, 1995's The Biz is more a return to the simpler structures of their debut. A short record that needs a few listens to appreciate, it contains little of distinction while succeeding as an amiable exercise in how to use the familiar guitar-bass-drums set up without sounding quite like anyone else. A little too smug and smooth for my taste, The Biz is perhaps the only inessential Sea and Cake album. Accomplished but forgettable.

IV
coverpic The Fawn (1997), on the other hand, is less a return to form and more of a leap off their lovingly drawn map. Incorporating more electronics, guided no doubt by John McEntire, it's a sad, repetitive album that sees Sam Prekop take more of a back seat as clattering drum machines, synths and bleeps are brought to the fore, along with Eric Claridge's mellifluous basslines. The impressive, dark, interlocking grooves are less instantly likeable than their trademark sound but are certainly powerful, and the album is bookended by two pop stunners: Sporting Life and the swooning Do Now Fairly Well.

V
coverpic Compared to the darker hues of The Fawn, Oui (2000) is like dappled sunlight on a summer balcony. There's a real atmosphere of lazy, contemplative luxury; the playing is practically horizontal it's so laidback. This is easy listening from another dimension - warm, humane and free of kitsch appeal. All The Photos has such charm that you melt into a state of contentment as it woozes along; You Beautiful Bastard manages to combine post-rock and reggae to produce a memorable instrumental. In fact, the instrumentation is satisfyingly full and varied throughout, from the delicious, shimmering vibraphone on The Leaf and Everyday to the lovely string arrangements on the closing I Missed The Glance. It's an album that's eay to fall for very quickly, yet has a depth of sound that can leave you speechless. If this is an indication of future sounds for The Sea and Cake then their next album is going to be very special indeed.

Copyright © 2001 Tim Clarke e-mail address

You may also want to check out our Sea and Cake articles/reviews: Car Alarm, Everybody, One Bedroom, Oui, Runner.

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