This is especially true of Chicago's The Sea and Cake, arriving in Tucson on Monday night. The general category into which it falls is easy enough: it's a pop rock band. But so is Ben Folds Five, or R.E.M., or even frigging Metallica these days. Its collective musical pedigree doesn't help much, either. Although The Sea and Cake is peripherally a part of the Chicago post-rock fraternity, its sound is often light and joyous, like some delicious sorbet, a characteristic seldom shared by its somber brethren. In a word, it's indescribable. Forthwith, a description.
Formed in late 1993 after the demise of singer Sam Prekop's (and bassist Eric Claridge's) previous curiously named band, Shrimp Boat, The Sea and Cake has alternated between prolific and nigh-dormant. Oui, the group's sixth release for fashionable indie label Thrill Jockey, arrived earlier this month after a nearly three-year hiatus. Compare that to the just-over-12-month period in 1994 and '95 that saw the release of the band's first three full-lengths, The Sea and Cake, Nassau and The Biz.
The discrepancy results from the members' tendency to keep their pokers in other fires (no sexual portent implied). You could almost accuse them of dilettantism, were their respective artistries not so top-notch. To wit: Drummer John McEntire also plays in the groundbreaking art-rock combo Tortoise (among many others), has built and runs his own recording studio, Soma, and generally functions as a "Chicago Sound" version of Booker T., in that you can't throw an indie rock in the city without hitting a musician he has recorded or played with.
Prekop and snazzily-named guitarist Archer Prewitt--he of the late, great Coctails--are both solo recording artists of no small acclaim, and everyone in the band but McEntire (presumably because he's too busy rocking) is a well-established visual artist. Claridge has a fantastic series of paintings featuring a smoking monkey, as well as cover art for the band's first and third releases. Oh, and Prekop is a photographer, too. It seems they're trying to make overachievement fashionable. It's clear that the men of The Sea and Cake aren't your average twenty-something pikers. Particularly because none of them are twenty-something.
The records are sonically, if not stylistically, varied. Nassau used all manner of signal-processing devices and post-recording fuckery to achieve the dub-influenced island sound to which the title alludes. The Biz is more of a straight-up rock record, dominated by Prewitt's sometimes angular guitar and Prekop's lyrical flights of fancy and honey-dripping vocals. The Fawn, perhaps the group's most successful record, seems to pay more attention to the percussive stylings of McEntire, particularly with respect to the use of vibraphone and marimba.
Which brings us to Oui, for which the band employed a cadre of string and horn players (including Susan Voelz of Poi Dog Pondering) in arrangements by Paul Mertens. Mertens, as you probably don't recall, most recently did arrangements for Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds anniversary tour. It would seem, then, that Oui couldn't help but have that lush, pastoral Pet Sounds feeling, and yet the band studiously avoided that effect.
"Had we left the strings as they were when recorded, it would have sent the record in too much of a throwback direction. We're trying to avoid doing anything specifically retro," Prekop says when asked about the burial of the string sounds. "We used the string stuff ... as sort of raw material," he continues. "There's sort of no other way that you could get that sound without using a real violinist. But we're interested in the other textures that can come out of that sound. We weren't looking to be Rock Band with String Quartet Behind It."
Prekop is obviously conscious of the implications of being tarred by the same brush as the Smashing Pumpkins, or, say, the aforementioned Metallica, both of whom indulged the tired string-arrangement trope as if it were some rite of passage into important-dom. So Oui doesn't bog down in an overindulgence of superfluous musicians. It's a more subtly realized effort than the band's previous work. It's also a confection, more so than the rest.
The effervescent quality of the band's sound is attributable in large measure to Prekop's delicate and laconic slur, especially when combined with Prewitt's sunnier guitar parts. Often described in lazy journalistic circles as a falsetto, Prekop's voice tends to function as another instrument rather than an articulation of lyrical purpose. "I'd like to think that I'm exploiting a certain range," he says in describing his method. "I would hardly say that I'm technically very vocally acrobatic or anything. I guess my range naturally is maybe a bit higher than most."
This naturally creates a certain buoyancy. The sound is lively and joyous, blissful, even, only faltering when the musicians become too introspective. It's a sweet sound, best indulged when you wake up in a good mood on Saturday morning and the possibilities for the day seem endless. It is wistful and romantic, like how you feel after a first date with that special Jenny or Andy. It's music to kiss your cousin to. It probably sounds better on Ecstasy than most faceless turntable hacks. But that's just a guess.
Influences on the The Sea and Cake sound are diverse. Prekop is into experimental jazz, listing Out There a Minute by Sun Ra as one of his favorites. Although it's hard to tell how Sun Ra finds his way into Prekop's singing or playing, an affinity for Ennio Morricone does come through, especially in the degree to which TSAC has a non-linear yet cinematic feel. And it only makes sense that Prekop loves Curtis Mayfield and Al Green, what with the way quasi-funk and pseudo-falsetto find their way into the music of TSAC. Archer Prewitt is a Nick Drake fan, disappointed like all of us that "Pink Moon" is now being used to hawk Volkswagens. Prewitt also lists pop genius Richard Davies and his former band Cardinal as faves, natch.
Lyrics take a back seat in the S&C's modus operandi. Prekop writes esoteric wordscapes, snatches of verbiage that are not meant to be construed in any literal way. They're similar to the feeling, upon first waking, of attempting to remember specifics of the dreams of the night before, only to have them merge together and jumble. "I get the feeling that most people just sort of blow the lyrics off," says the singer. While that might be true, the snippets that do come through can be compelling, in a captured-moment sort of way.
"Let's be missing / right before dawn" from "The Kiss," perhaps the group's best song, exemplifies this. In six words Prekop conjures a complex romantic escapism, something Christopher Marlowe took a whole poem to do. More often than not, though, Prekop errs on the side of lyrical inscrutability. "What you fly can't be done so long / crimson wing talk a lot" from "Bird and Flag" on The Fawn, or "watered down tonight, bound / torn like I used to / better lefty driver / better lefty driver" from "The Cantina" exemplify this tendency.
The current tour, which embarked from Champaign, Ill., on Tuesday, is the band's first in three years. Although Prewitt and Prekop have played together quite a bit in the intervening period, some warm-ups in Chicago have been essential insofar as they've forced the band to practice. "I think if we left it 'til now to rehearse for the tour, we'd be in trouble," Prekop says.
The band generally enjoys touring, and Prekop claims they all get along quite well. "We usually have a pretty good time. We hardly tour that often, so it's not exactly like a grind."
They will be joined on tour by labelmates Town and Country, a group more "experimental" in nature, according to Prekop, who indulges his own experimental approaches to music with a home studio.
Like Miles Davis said, writing about music is like dancing about architecture. The Sea and Cake will make you feel good. That's the only reason you need to go see it.