Spit and Vinegar

Archer Prewitt uses both visual arts and music to express himself

If Archer Prewitt's spare, beautiful pop songs, ornamented by occasional horn, bells or mellotron, sound like aural paintings, it's no accident. In addition to maintaining a thriving solo recording career and holding down the guitarist position in the popular indie band The Sea and Cake, the 42-year-old singer and songwriter also is an accomplished visual artist.

Prewitt creates the underground comic book Sof' Boy, which is published by Drawn and Quarterly Publications. Japanese licensing of the surreal main character has yielded dolls and other collectible tchotchkes. He regularly contributes illustrations to Chicago Reader and various periodicals, and his work was included in the McSweeney's comic collection edited by Chris Ware. Two gallery exhibitions in the past year have featured Prewitt's original drawings and prints, and he recently opened a two-man show in Chicago with poster artist Jay Ryan.

In the midst of preparations for the concert tour that will bring him and his band to Tucson for a gig at Plush on Feb. 13, Prewitt chatted briefly over the phone from his Chicago home. He said visual arts and music are complementary forms of expression for him.

"I feel like they are sort of born from the same space. With both of them, you initially create a little kernel of an impression, a kind of skeleton that you can then flesh out if it excites you to the point where you can continue working with it. Most of my life, I've been more interested in drawing and painting from life. But I do like telling a story, too."

After two previous full-length albums and an EP, Prewitt's 2005 album Wilderness drew primarily from life. It is his melancholy masterpiece, a sometimes angry and occasionally despondent collection of tunes that emerged following the passing of the artist's father.

Prewitt's last solo CD, Three, in 2002, was suffused with a feeling of joy and hopefulness based on "a new, fresh relationship with a woman--that's Ariane, my wife--and being very happy," he said.

"Then right before our wedding, my father passed away ... at this point, I hit the dark period again, and then Bush was re-elected. So the world situation and my family situation and the basic human situation brought me back to a dark and sober place, right after all this elation."

For example, "O, KY" directly addresses the loss of Prewitt's father, and "No More" and "Way of the Sun" are sober meditations on the state of a post-Sept. 11 world.

"I think I am trying to convey some things, like with 'Wilderness' and 'O Lord,' that I think are pretty angry and biting commentary. I'm not trying to be heavy-handed about it necessarily. After playing a series of songs in a row, it becomes like a little look into where I was, and I think I was in a place with a lot of spit and vinegar."

Prewitt said the title track, the final of the 11 songs on the CD, was the last song he wrote for the record. It speaks of the power of love, even in the darkest of times.

"It was written while I was drawing the cover portrait of a woman. That woman asked for a song to be written about her. That song came out of nowhere, and it was fully formed."

The meticulous pencil drawing to which he refers depicts a gorgeous, nymph-like siren he has described as being "an incorruptible innocent, an omniscient 'child of nature.'"

Prewitt said sets during his current tour focus primarily on songs from Three and Wilderness, juggling the ecstasy of the former with the darkness of the latter. Joining Prewitt onstage on the current tour are the same musicians who constitute the Wilderness core group: bassist and keyboardist Mark Greenberg, keyboardist and trumpeter Max Crawford and drummer Chris Manfrin.

Despite the vitriol of his recent work, Prewitt's songs are elegant, instant classics of pop artistry, beautiful and bewitching, combining elements of the best work of Burt Bacharach, Joni Mitchell, Bread, Gordon Lightfoot and XTC. It's not surprising, then, that he cited Nick Drake, Scott Walker, Bob Dylan, Smog, The Beatles, The Bee Gees and Simon and Garfunkel as among his favorite artists.

Obviously, Prewitt is fond of musical periods when pop wasn't considered a dirty word. "I really crave a good pop song. I tend to listen to older records, because there were so many good pop songs that are so well-formed."

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