Cake Walk

Sam Prekop is painting when I call at the appointed time. And, as unromantic as it sounds, he's on deadline. In need of 15 paintings for a solo exhibition, Prekop has a definite plan: Don't try anything revolutionary, just paint what works.

"It's a little bit weird now, working toward a show," Prekop explains via phone from his Chicago home. "I feel pressure over my head. I know in the back of my mind what works and what doesn't. I know that I need 15 paintings, but if I start going in a brand-new direction right now, that might not make as good a show, or so I think."

Prekop's approach to painting may sound methodical and safe, even with the possibility he's sacrificing quality for quantity. But it's just as difficult, just as dangerous to paint this way. Having a plan is one thing; making it work is something completely different.

"I feel maybe that's a little bit of a cop-out," he admits. "But it's not making doing the paintings any easier really, so I assume it's still OK. It's still really hard. If it seems to be easy, then I'm probably in trouble."

Prekop's philosophy toward productivity has relevance to his music as well. He fronts the quiet, Chicago-based quartet The Sea and Cake. The band has, almost dutifully, pumped out five albums (and one EP, 1997's Two Gentlemen) in just six years. On October 3, the group released Oui, its first album since 1997's The Fawn. Like Prekop's paintings for his upcoming show, Oui isn't revolutionary; it isn't a new direction for The Sea and Cake. In fact, out of context, the album might seem, well, boring. Oui is the kind of work that requires a certain listening environment, say, during intermission at a crowded club, blaring from oversized speakers, or in the background at a party. It doesn't demand attention, encourage dancing, or inspire exalted kudos--it simply fits certain spaces.

The Sea and Cake is certainly familiar with the subjectiveness of art, in any medium. Like bandmates Archer Prewitt (guitar) and Eric Claridge (bass), Prekop is a devoted visual artist. In fact, he and Prewitt met at the art school from which they later graduated. Drummer John McEntire went to music school and has his own recording studio.

"Being a professional artist is as tall an order as rock musician," he says. "In fact, I think it's been more difficult just because the outlets and the audience are so much less. With music, there's someone somewhere that's probably going to be into whatever you're doing. The art network is a lot more closed-up."

Since the release of their self-titled debut in 1994, The Sea and Cake have developed a small, devout fan base and significant critical acclaim. The band is lauded for its simple, yet complex, approach to pop melody. Like most of their Thrill Jockey labelmates, they've snagged the post-rock tag, a misnomer since most of their songs are quiet, concise pop introspections rather than experimental, edgy improv sessions.

The Sea and Cake formed from the ashes of Shrimp Boat, a young band in which Claridge and Prekop wer members. Prewitt had been playing with The Coctails, while McEntire was working at the studio where Shrimp Boat recorded. The Sea and Cake's first album was originally released on the European label Rough Trade. Later, through McEntire's association with Bettina Richards, who operates Thrill Jockey, they found a new label closer to home.

The Sea and Cake is a tight, simple album, with most of its songs short and bright pop constructions. Prekop has always delivered words much like a young, sober Lou Reed, though his manner is slighter, more sensitive. Prekop's lyrics, however, have nothing in common with Reed's narratives about junkies and losers; most of Prekop's songs are about relationships, or personal ruminations and minor observations, albeit abstract ones. Like the band's music, Prekop's lyrics appear to be an afterthought. And, well, they are.

"I definitely consider composing lyrics my most difficult job," he explains. "I don't write stuff until I have to. I don't do it for fun--ever. I use that as a motivation, like, someone's got to do it. It's a little tricky because I almost never have a theme or message that I need to convey through words. Writing is a fairly abstract process, mainly through trial and error. I hope that certain things will sort of add up to some sort or sense or resonate with me. Or that they're somehow poetic--not to abuse the word. I have some strategies I use to come up with stuff, to try things out. As soon as I start working on a particular tune I work on the lyrics hand-in-hand with the music and take clues from one or the other."

Oui is better than previous efforts in some respects, especially when it comes to Prekop's vocals. (For instance, only the studious, highly attentive listener would notice, but Prekop actually sings backing vocals now, too.) Still, Oui is not exactly a departure from The Fawn. Since The Fawn, The Sea and Cake simply have sounded middle-aged. Gone is the charged, blunt pop aesthetic of "Escort" (from The Biz) or the sheer youthful vigor of "Nature Boy" (from 1995's Nassau). Prekop's visceral yelps and bantam screams are sadly lacking from all post-Biz recordings. The singer's random outbursts confirmed the fact that The Sea and Cake don't take themselves too seriously. Hearing Prekop raise his voice to Axl Rose heights, if only for a few seconds, was a welcome touch next to the band's sleepy music. The Fawn was the band's first electronic, streamlined album, recorded at McEntire's own Soma Electronic Music Studio. Both The Fawn and Oui sound airbrushed, clean, as if washed over by sand and water.

"Afternoon Speaker," the first track from Oui, is galloping and sprightly--the bouncy, melodic side of The Sea and Cake. "The Colony Room" is pleasant with its tight, rhythmic groove and brushed percussion sounding like sharp, fine rain on metal. "The Leaf" is trademark McEntire--bouncing Brazilian-style marimba, warm electric guitar, a slow, methodical, Tortoise-like invention. "Everyday" is like a Sunday afternoon or a casual walk through the park. It features a chiming marimba (one of the most compelling reasons to listen to this music) and soft lyrics to match: "Balance has taken so long/So long, try not to wander/So long, falling not to get up, everyday/Try me so tender/The last time it's so nice to get there."

"I Missed the Glance," the album's final track, starts off with McEntire's bossa nova drumming and almost Far Eastern-style strings, but eventually it slides into a lethargic, warbly groove. Prewitt's wah-wah guitar moves in and out like waves washing the shore. On "Glance," Prekop wonders, "Sleeping the days away, why suffer?"

The album's aesthetic is escapist in general, from its palm tree cover photograph (shot by Prekop in Australia) to the singer's vague, distant lyrics. Everything about Oui is somehow looming on the horizon, like a faint mirage, or the fragile remnants of a balmy dream.

Prekop confirms somewhat tongue-in-cheek that with Oui the "theme was to keep it lean." Mission accomplished. It's obvious that The Sea and Cake work within their own criteria, responding to the subtle nuances of each other rather than making a grand social statement or trying to emulate a particular music scene. This may account for their faithful consistency to form over the years and albums; even the first album doesn't sound like a debut because almost every recording since has followed suit. With most outfits, there's an obvious progression (or regression). That's the funny thing about The Sea and Cake: They're consistent almost to a fault. In fact, Prekop's description of his paintings (such as the one adorning the cover of his 1999 eponymous solo album) is just as fitting for his music: small, neat, uniform.

"My paintings are in some ways, someone might say, they're all the same painting. They're almost always the same orientation," Prekop says. "There are variations, but thematically they're very similar. Even though they're geometric, I would consider them atmospheric. I like to think of them as kind of automatic inventions--almost like doodling on a bigger scale. I sort of output a lot of ideas and at different stages deal with what happened at that point, then sort of react to a certain degree."

In the same manner, the members of The Sea and Cake react to each other musically.

"We usually try to in some respects keep it as open as possible as we're working," Prekop explains of the group's songwriting process. "There's not some grand idea that we're looking to accomplish because otherwise I think that would be sort of like one-liners. After doing it so long we're aware and conscious of the language that we deal in, so there's always the challenge that we don't get lazy. We usually try to 'up the ante' in some way. As you get better, it seems harder to keep it interesting. We've lucked out by starting out not trying to do anything super specifically, and being as true to what we know how to do and get better at that thing as much as possible."

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Jessica Parker