Wednesday, February 5, 2014

30 For 30: The Sea and Cake

I turn 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 3, learn about why I love the band The Sea and Cake and give a listen to four of my favorite songs by them.
In the first entry for this series, I wrote about how it felt to meet other people who shared my obsession with a cult-like object. Whereas with EarthBound I was able to talk about the game with other people in real life and online, and it made me feel part of something greater than myself, I've never had similar experiences with The Sea and Cake. I believe they will always be mine and mine alone. Of course the band has other fans, and I did see them at a music festival in the Summer of 2007 in the midst of a sizable crowd, but I've never had a conversation with anyone who has heard of them, online or otherwise. Even when I introduce others to the band, they don't end up sharing my enthusiasm.

Calling The Sea and Cake obscure would be inaccurate; marginal, perhaps, is a better word. In a hypothetical book that encompasses all of music history, they would be in the margin somewhere. A footnote might be more appropriate, seeing as how footnotes are the cornerstone of the Chicago style of citation and The Sea and Cake are one of the preeminent Chicago bands of the past 20 years. But I digress. I think the reason this band is so ignored is that they don't provoke a strong reaction. To a new listener, all of their albums kind of sound the same and cruise by with only the occasional bumps in the road. Words like mellow, breezy, Summery, jazzy, and smooth always come up when I describe them to people, and singer Sam Prekop's upper register vocals are characterized by an airy, sighing, and slightly nasal sound. Indeed, he and The Sea and Cake have such a distinctive, instantly recognizable sound that this is part of the reason it can be difficult for new listeners to distinguish between albums, let alone songs.

To me, though, each album is a variation on an idea. This is a band where the more you dig into their discography, the more you notice subtle details and shifting instrumentation. Even without considering what they sound like, this explains why The Sea and Cake are often labelled as being jazzy or post-jazz. Much like a traditional jazz band, their sound and song structures are pretty much codified, but a truly skilled group of musicians can wring a lot of variety by working from the same set of blueprints again and again.

If The Sea and Cake don't mean much to me on an emotional level—I don't “relate” to their lyrics, for instance, in the way I do Nick Drake or The National—then I can relate to them on a visceral level. Their music is all about the feel: a relaxed atmosphere akin to slight Summer winds, or other times, the slow momentum of being on a train in a city. I can't help but nod my head or slow down my normally racing thoughts when I listen to The Sea and Cake. They are as essential to me as afternoon tea or yoga are for other people, transcending a mere “band I really love” status to something vital. Call it vitamin Sea...and Cake.

I refuse to apologize for this bad joke.

To complete this entry in the 30 For 30 series, I had planned to talk about 30 songs by the band that I love the most. But since this would be maddeningly long, I'll trim it down to four.

'Parasol' (Nassau, 1995)

From the band's second album, 'Parasol' represents the early sound of the band quite well. It's more dense than later work, and Sam Prekop's vocals haven't yet gotten to the point where he sighs out every line as if relaxed in a swaying hammock near a tropical beach. However, I love the way this song progresses, adding in sounds until it's downright claustrophobic by The Sea and Cake standards. This gives way to string section enhanced bridges where Prekop repeats the song's title while sounding like someone exhaling a cloud of smoke on a hotel balcony during a long vacation.

'The Argument' (The Fawn, 1997)

In some ways this is the quintessential The Sea and Cake song, the one most capable of functioning as a litmus test for someone to determine if they'd love this band or not. It has some of everything they've done over the years and demonstrates their standard way of structuring songs, which is to establish a mellow groove for a minute or two before the vocals and/or main section kicks in. This is another thing that gives the band its jazzy reputation, since this kind of structure is often how jazz songs work: a few minutes of playing around until the main 'theme' or melody is stated. But I digress. 'The Argument' is from The Fawn, the album that added electronic flourishes to The Sea and Cake's repertoire. Unlike other bands at the time who went electro, though, this is a band who use the sound of synthesizers, drum machines, samples, and sequencers to naturally complement their sound. With later records the divide between the acoustic/electric and electronic elements would become more pronounced and up-front, with songs often focusing on one or the other. With The Fawn and especially 2000's Oui, they work together as a magical synthesis that makes The Sea and Cake difficult to define as belonging to rock, jazz, or electronic music.

'Exact To Me' (Everybody, 2007)

It's hard to bill The Sea and Cake albums as being about this or that thing, because there's always a track or two that don't fit neatly into claims like “it's their rock album” or “it's their electronic album.” Everybody came after a four year break and was supposed to be their guitar focused record, sporting a more muscular sound with no overdubs. Indeed, this does apply to most of the album, with the guitars having more distortion than usual and the low-end sounding more full-bodied. But then there's 'Exact To Me', with its exotic rhythms and flamenco-esque guitar flourishes. As a whole Everybody is one of my favorites by The Sea and Cake because a song like this works, somehow, despite its placement on the album, surrounded as it is by two mellow tracks that are perfectly suited for that period in the late afternoon when you're yawning enough to want to take a nap but you end up smoking a cigarette or making some tea instead.

'The Invitations' (Runner, 2012)

Regarding criticism that every song sounds the same: The Sea and Cake's consistency is one of the things that draws me to them but the times when they throw their usual game plan out the window are often my favorite tracks from their respective albums. The cover of 'Sound & Vision' by David Bowie from One Bedroom is downright fun and has wonderfully cheesy 80s keyboard sounds. The instrumental 'Black Tree In The Bee Yard' from The Fawn feels like it wandered in from a Tortoise album (which makes sense, as The Sea and Cake's drummer John McEntire is in both bands). 'The Invitations', meanwhile, starts off floating on a bed of vintage synthesizer washes before samples of schoolchildren appear through the haze, recalling Boards Of Canada's first two albums. Soon a driving beat kicks in, and the remaining two minutes of the song are given to an extended instrumental with danceable beats, the band's patented intertwining guitars, and twirling keyboard loops.

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