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Often referred to as a kind of postrock supergroup, Chicago’s the Sea and Cake certainly has a highfalutin’ pedigree. Led by former Shrimp Boat frontman Sam Prekop on vocals, guitar, and synth, the 10-year-old band also includes famed indie producer/Svengali John McEntire on drums, percussion, piano, and synth; ex-Coctail Archer Prewitt on guitar, piano, vocals, and (yes) synth; and Prekop’s fellow Boater Eric Claridge on bass. Somehow, though, the Sea and Cake has always managed to be less than the sum of its parts, relying on Prekop’s so-smooth-you-could-spread-’em-on-a-bagel vocal stylings to differentiate its elegant, if faceless, stylizations from those of the rest of the postrock pack.
If I wasn’t expecting much from the Sea and Cake’s new LP, One Bedroom, it was because the band’s previous release, 2000’s Oui, was so much aural dishwater. To be sure, it contained innumerable examples of Prekop & Co.’s instrumental prowess. But so what if the Sea and Cake can match slick licks with any studioful of soulless El Lay session guys? Strip away the jazz-workshop virtuosity and what you’re left with on Oui is impeccably produced background noise for lobotomized lounge zombies.
What a difference three years can make. I don’t know whether the Sea and Cake got struck by lightning, satori, or a small German automobile during the interim, but One Bedroom is not only eminently listenable, it actually—at least in places—borders on enthralling. For Oui’s cool vibes and tasteful horns and impeccable string arrangements, One Bedroom substitutes a healthy dose of krautrock momentum. There’s not a trombone or cello in sight.
Furthermore, the Sea and Cake seems finally to have seized on the secret of Steely Dan’s greatness—namely, that while it’s all well and fine to make supersleek, ultrastreamlined, skin-deep soul albums that sound fabulous while listened to on a $50,000 stereo with $5,000 headphones, it don’t mean shit if they sink your audience into a coma. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen may go down in history as the tightest whiteys to ever suck up to a saxophone, but Lord knows they gave swingin’ the old Bard College try. The men of Dan were populists at heart—which is why they’ll go down in history as elitists: Enough Foghat fans actually heard “Deacon Blues” on the FM to want to kill them.
One Bedroom jumps out of the starting gate with the jaunty, Neu!-inspired “Four Corners.” Featuring a punchy bass line by Claridge, some simple but propulsive drumming by McEntire, and lots of in-your-face Bowie/Eno-esque synthesizer sorcery by somebody (or maybe everybody), the track races along for a bit before leading into a Prekop vocal so breathy it sounds as if it had been recorded from the roof of a speeding automobile. Sure, the sound is whippet-thin by rock standards, but the way this thing motorvates, it’s sure to have the Sea and Cake’s core audience of post-graduate hornrims reaching for their inhalers.
Lest you think “Four Corners” is some kind of practical joke, anomaly, or horrible recording mistake, the band—whose previous high point, energywise, appears to have occurred during a go-for-broke glockenspiel solo way back in 1997—throws all caution to the wind on the bouncy “Mr. F.” With its hurry-it-up drumming, hipster-on-the-make vocals, and Ritalin-kids-on-a-seesaw bass line—no doubt about it, Claridge is the unacknowledged legislator of this band—the song is the closest the Sea and Cake is ever likely to get to cutting loose.
More on the Steely Dan front, “Hotel Tell” incorporates some wondrously deft drumming by McEntire, lots of funky synths, and (once again) Claridge’s gymnastic bass-playing to produce a rhythmically busy little ditty that would sound right at home on Aja. Though Prekop’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics (sample lines: “Down on the corner/Sleepers/So adore recounting/The last time forever”) may lack the cutting irony and hangdog wit of Fagen’s, they never fail to sound good coming out of the man’s mouth. Plus, their self-effacing absurdism tips you off to the fact that Prekop isn’t out to make the world a gift of his poetic vision.
Ever better is the totally Dan’d-out “Shoulder Length.” I read an interview a while back in which one of the Sea and Cakers (must have been one of the synth players) denied having been influenced by the Steely Ones. But the fellow was either prevaricating or, well, lying through his teeth, because “Shoulder Length” has Becker and Fagen’s fingerprints all over it, right down to its syncopated rhythm, snazzy synthesizer breaks, and adorable lil’ bit of “Haitian Divorce”-style synth-wah at the close. “Summertime/Don’t give it all away/Specialize/You get a look in your eye,” sings Prekop, and his vocals actually sound energized rather than enervated. Cocky and soulful, Prekop goes at “Shoulder Length” as if Humphrey Bogart had just finished slapping the cocktail shaker out of his hand and shouted, “Stand up straight and sing, dandy boy!” He also shines on the mid-tempo “Le Baron,” a slow-burning number driven by McEntire’s metronomic drumming and lots of intertwined and moody synthesizers. “I bring it on/My resignation/I send it off/My validation,” intones Prekop in his vapor trail of a voice, the words dissolving blissfully into a hazy blue sky.
If One Bedroom isn’t quite perfect, it has less to do with its lack of closet space than its stuffy “Interiors.” The song starts promisingly enough, with some sinuous synths and a bare-bones beat, but you know you’re in trouble when some easy-listening aaahhhs burst in like so many escapees from a Stereolab disc. Granted, there are worse things in the world than having to listen to somebody actually try to replicate Stereolab, but most of them involve being buried alive with George Will. At any rate, “Interiors” is enough to make me wish vivisepulture upon Prekop, Stereolab, the High Llamas, and anyone else who might be responsible for the scourge of nonsense-syllable-driven Muzak that has descended upon the postrock scene in the past several years.
Fortunately, “Interiors” is the only bona fide stinker on One Bedroom—that is, unless you include the pointless cover of Bowie’s “Sound & Vision.” Not that there’s anything particularly objectionable about the Sea and Cake’s version, mind you. In fact, it sticks pretty close to the original, except that instead of Bowie’s cocaine-frazzled vocals, which lent the original such frisson, we get the bland stylings of mannerly modern-architecture connoisseurs and Aluminum Group members John and Frank Navin. And what, I ask you, is the point of producing a paler shade of the Thin White Duke?
Still, the Sea and Cake could have done much worse. Why, it’s actually rather gallant, the way the band members close things up by tipping their collective cap to one of their mentors. And short of an actual Steely Dan cover, there’s probably no good way to end an album as natty and courtly as this one. Here’s hoping that next time out, Prekop & Co. give us what we—and they—secretly want: a note-perfect version of “Reelin’ in the Years.” CP