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The Pop Whisperer
Eight records in, the Sea and Cake are still experimenting
Of all the genre-transcending bands who swarmed around Chicago’s Thrill Jockey Records in the ’90s, the Sea and Cake were pitched the most toward pop, thanks in part to singer/guitarist Sam Prekop’s thick whisper. Over a handful of affable records, the quartet—featuring Tortoise’s John McEntire on drums, the Coctails’ Archer Prewitt on guitar, and Eric Claridge on bass and synths—pursued suave songwriting that just happened to get swept up in the perceived trend of “post-rock.”
Following a three-year hiatus punctuated by solo outings from Prekop and Prewitt, the Sea and Cake resumed their prolific output with last year’s Everybody and this fall’s Car Alarm. The latter, the band’s eighth proper full-length, is brisk and jumpy, tweaked with super-shiny electronics on “CMS Sequence” and “Weekend,” and benefiting overall from a hastened recording schedule. At the same time, the outfit’s signature breeziness and pristine jangle are perfectly preserved.
“We were refreshed,” says Prekop. “It was a relief in some ways, and somewhat surprising that we could lock back into it so readily. Archer and I played together fairly often in the interim, so it wasn’t a huge stretch to get it back together. And in our minds, we never officially disbanded. Conceptually, the band was still going. We just got caught up with these other projects.”
Those projects, whether it involved playing on one another’s solo albums or concentrating on painting—something that Prekop, Prewitt and Claridge also do—wound up putting more distance between each Sea and Cake album.
“It always takes longer than you anticipate,” Prekop admits. “By the time you record it and tour it, the cycle seems to be about two years for each record. It just sort of slips by.”
That lag between albums is what motivated the band to go into the studio after touring behind Everybody and immediately record its follow-up. The idea was to take advantage of both the inertia of the band’s live show and the spontaneity of recording up against a wall. “That was a big part of it,” he agrees. “Mainly to escape that two-year cycle. We had been playing live so often [that] we were quite warmed-up and working as a band. Also, I have twins now, and I knew that was going to happen, so I’m like, ‘Okay, I better get this record done before they show up.’ That helped move it along, too.”
All those things help make Car Alarm a more surprising experience, not to mention a lesson for any band hoping to mix things up eight albums in. Although there’s always something austere and controlled about Sea and Cake records, this one is fresher and more spidery than others. The synth-slick, cymbal-clouded final minute of “Window Sills” is a structural highlight, the overlapping drums of “Down In the City” grab our attention on every listen, and “The Mirrors” doesn’t as much close the record as fade away. And the anomaly “Weekend” feels more like a dance remix than an album track.
Prekop says that song defied his expectations. “The original idea of it really didn’t sound like what it came out to be. We sort of fell into that direction after the original idea failed. [But] we were hoping that some of those situations would happen.” As for the album’s other moments of pronounced electronics, he points to 1997’s The Fawn, which he calls “one of our first electronic forays,” and observes that their EPs often head in that direction. The band, he says, tried to tackle this album more like one of those EPs.
Throughout the Sea and Cake’s years of exploration, Prekop’s low-key yet instantly recognizable singing has remained the one constant. If anything, it’s gotten smoother with each album. Prekop has made expert use of cold, opaque lyrics and song titles, many prefaced by “the.” Car Alarm specifically is populated with images of the mundane, from the title track to songs such as “The Staircase,” “Pages” and “Mirrors.”
“The way I arrive at finding lyrics and themes and ideas hasn’t really changed all that much,” he says. “I’ve always approached the words in a pretty un-precious sort of way, just improvising and seeing what happens. I set myself up each time to find interesting connections.”
In that way, his lyrics mirror the band’s slippery, improvised arrangements, which take as many stylistic cues from jazz as from pop.
“I could see setting myself a challenge to write a straight narrative song,” he adds. “It could be interesting.”
The Sea and Cake, Uglysuit, and the Color Turning at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 865-3802; www.theglasshouse.us. Fri., 7 p.m. $13-$15. All ages.