US - Illinois - Full Moon 63 - 11/30/01
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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