Pazz and Jop

Chicago all-star collective The Sea and Cake returns to blur the musical lines with Oui

Pay attention now. This is complicated.

This was in Chicago, long about early 1994. Sam Prekop and Eric Claridge had been in a band called Shrimp Boat, recently defunct. Archer Prewitt was a member of the Cocktails, which had similarly disbanded. All three were friends of a guy named John McEntire, who played in an ambient jazz combo called Mosquito, later to rename itself Tortoise. McEntire arranged his schedule with Mosquito so he could hook up with Prekop, Claridge and Prewitt, and they recorded and released an album in the fall of '94 under the name The Sea and Cake.

Actually, they released more than one. The Sea and Cake produced a total of four albums in as many years: that self-titled debut, Nassau and The Biz (both 1995), and The Fawn (1997), which was quickly followed by an EP titled Two Gentlemen.

Having their Sea and Cake: Clockwise from top left, Archer Prewitt, Eric Claridge, John McEntire and Sam Prekop.
Having their Sea and Cake: Clockwise from top left, Archer Prewitt, Eric Claridge, John McEntire and Sam Prekop.

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Then, as Prekop recalls, came the unintentional hiatus. "It wasn't a real hiatus," he clarifies. "Archer and I did a lot of shows together." During the time The Sea and Cake was on hold, Prekop toured extensively, both solo and with various ensembles. Prekop also painted works for art shows in Chicago and New York. He and Prewitt both released solo albums during those few years, in addition to playing and recording with each other on various musical projects.

McEntire, still drumming with Tortoise, spent time building his 24-track SOMA studio and also engineered recordings for Stereolab. Claridge mounted a series of shows exhibiting his paintings in Chicago, and had a bi-monthly insert in the Chicago Reader.

(Also, Prewitt worked on his "Sof' Boy" merchandise and comic, published by Fantagraphics; I forgot that one earlier. You see how complicated this is getting.)

So when the smoke began to clear in late '99, The Sea and Cake picked up where it left off, kind of.

"It's not like we came back from retirement or anything," Prekop continues. "It was always in our minds that we'd do something again. But there were some things that we had to work around. The solo thing I did took longer than I'd expected, and we were waiting for John to finish his studio.

"Has it been three years? I don't know. It doesn't feel like that long to me. But that's what everybody's saying, three years, so . . . I'm just going along with it."

Prekop, who sings and plays guitar on The Sea and Cake's new album Oui, is careful not to speak for its other members, but he's probably not far off from the general sentiment: "I can only say, for me, I felt really good about getting it back together. People were still interested. . . . I was happy to oblige. When we first started playing again, we were a little bit nervous [about the gap since the last sessions], but those fears kind of dissipated quickly. I don't think it was ever an overriding issue. We cared about it, we were aware of it . . . but once we started playing again, the fear went away.

"Once we decided to do it, it wasn't a problem," Prekop says of the timing necessary to resume recording as The Sea and Cake. "We all wanted to, so it was just a matter of getting schedules to link up. And we're all going to be involved with the music for a long time on this tour; it wasn't like we were just hanging out, doing nothing and then decided to get the group started again. We wanted to do it." Of the 12 songs they eventually laid down for Oui, 10 made it onto the album; and in Prekop's memory, the three weeks spent assembling this album were the most rewarding band project yet. "I think [Oui] is the most successful record we've done, as far as getting the whole album to cohere."

Prekop's confidence is well-placed. "Oui is a pop album," reads the press release put out by the New York-Girlie Action Media, but that's fudging by more than a little. If Oui is pop, it's only in the way Antonio Carlos Jobim is pop, or Miles Davis' On the Corner is pop; The Sea and Cake's new album has more in common with Jobim's late bossa nova and Davis' jazz-meets-street impulses than with your basic Top 40 playlist. The Sea and Cake's idiom is a lot closer to jazz than rock anyway, even if this album makes the occasional motion in the latter direction.

Prekop's bright guitar, alongside McEntire's brush-and-rim drum work (immediately recognizable to Tortoise fans), Claridge's understated bass and Prewitt's equally careful keyboard, holds Oui together in a wash of sustained-major chords and lightly inflected vocals. After the band brought in strings to sweeten the sound a bit, they ended up blurring them through synth tones to avoid tumbling over into "saccharine"; the result is a moody arrangement that places the sound of Oui somewhere between Ipanema and Illinois. Oui is more "pop" than The Sea and Cake's previous releases, certainly, but it's hardly designed for heavy FM rotation.

The album's lean and spare segues can occasionally fool you into thinking you've been listening to an extended song suite when, really, two or three cuts have passed. But far from being repetitive or droning, the complex melodies on Oui (particularly its most striking instrumental, the pricelessly titled "You Beautiful Bastard") weave subtly through each song, over regular rhythms that provide a steady backdrop; this is music that sounds like a tapestry looks. The longer you listen, the more details you notice within the dense threads: the compact marimba work and startling time-signature change on "The Leaf"; the near-end beat when Prekop's vocals and all the mounting percussion finally come together on "The Colony Room," then abruptly back away, leaving the keyboard, guitar and light drums to carry the tune; or impenetrable lyrics like "I'm afraid that/There's no reason/I'm waiting" sung in breathy overtones, appearing out of the haze and then receding.

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