Over the course of his career, which has already yielded a shelf full of records, Chicago singer/guitarist Sam Prekop has drawn from enough disparate sources to make himself admirably difficult to pin down. Is he a folkie with jazz influences? A jazzbo with a jones for Caribbean music? An art-rocker with country leanings? The labels, of course, are less important than Prekop’s music, which incorporates all these elements into a consistently playful brand of cerebral rock.
Prekop first showed up fronting Shrimp Boat, whose self-released Speckly album features the sort of herky-jerk rhythms and warm jazz/folk intermingling (a banjo playing here while a sax plays a sharp solo line there) that have come to characterize his career. This approach — simultaneously challenging and inviting — recalls the excellent work of several like-minded bands, including Men & Volts, the Minutemen and, especially, New York’s Mofungo/The Scene Is Now collective, whose Willie Klein and Chris Nelson appear to be the primary influences on Prekop’s mildly yodel-ish vocal style. The overall effect is crisp and, thanks to Prekop’s knack for simple melodies, addictively catchy. Despite one badly pretentious polemic (the environmentalist “An Orchid Is Not a Rose,” which includes the embarrassing line, “An orchid is not a coal-burning power plant”) and a sonic paradigm still in its developmental stages, Speckly clearly heralds the arrival of a significant talent.
When Bar/None took longer than expected to issue Shrimp Boat’s second studio album, the group filled the void by releasing Volume 1, a collection of early recordings, live tracks and related ephemera, most of it predating Speckly and much of it sounding quite a bit like the more fragmented late-’60s work by the Red Krayola. Interesting but inconsequential.
Shrimp Boat took a great leap forward with Duende, a beautiful, expansive album featuring fuller production and a more confident approach to incorporating the quartet’s assorted musical influences into an overall sound. With the drum kit manned by Brad Wood (later to be known as Liz Phair’s producer), Duende‘s 16 songs are anchored in roots rhythms — sometimes leaning toward country, sometimes toward folk, but always unmistakably organic — providing a simple base for Prekop and crew to build upon. On some songs, they throw bebop elements into the mix (“Bumble Bees”); on others they reference scat (“Sunday Crawls Along”), free jazz (“Duende”), even a hint of calypso (“Malva Rosita”). Incredibly, it all works, with liberal doses of humor and good cheer all around. Essential.
Cavale, which includes three of the four songs from the 7-inch Small Wonder EP, is significantly more complex in conception yet much subtler in execution. The roots-based bottom is gone. Here, Shrimp Boat builds its assorted influences into the songs’ rhythmic underpinnings rather than layering them on top, and the set relies as much on technical precision as it does on conception. The delivery, however, is much more gentle and restrained, resulting in an album whose best tunes sound tailor-made for lazy afternoons or rainy Sundays.
Tensions brought to the fore during recording caused the band to break apart shortly after the release of Cavale. Eleven years later, New York avant-jazz label AUM Fidelity trawled through hundreds of hours of unreleased recordings and practice tapes in order to assemble Something Grand, a three-disc (originally a limited-edition four) document of Shrimp Boat’s evolution from genre pranksters to subtle craftsmen. It’s a lot to consume in a single sitting, but this collection is nonetheless a valuable insight into one of the most unique bands of its time.
Following the dissolution of Shrimp Boat, guitarist/vocalist Ian Schneller formed Falstaff. The self-titled debut (packaged with a square beverage coaster in place of the traditional CD booklet), is an uneven mix of amiable, low-key tunes with strong echoes of Shrimp Boat and patience-trying songs whose over-obvious lyrics, vocals and rhythms border on novelty. After releasing Falstaff II, Schneller gave up on playing and became a guitar- and amp-maker.
While Prekop became the object of some major-label attention in the wake of Shrimp Boat, he pulled together a new band of Cavale bassist Eric Claridge, Coctails guitarist Archer Prewitt and drummer/producer-about-town John McEntire (Tortoise, Gastr del Sol). The Sea and Cake — whose name apparently came as a result of Prekop misunderstanding the title of a Gastr del Sol song, “The C in Cake” — signed to then-fledgling Chicago indie Thrill Jockey and began releasing records at a furious pace.
The group’s superb self-titled debut takes Cavale‘s ambitious compositional scope a step further and is more successful for it. Banishing any hints of folk and country, Prekop experiments with a variety of beautifully interwoven textures and rhythms, many of them from Caribbean and African sources. At its most pastoral, the record will have you reaching for a tropical drink; at its most bracing, even non-dancers will be hard-pressed to sit still. Highly recommended.
Nassau, the fine followup, comes flying out of the box with the dynamite “Nature Boy,” Prekop’s most supercharged song since Duende, but quickly settles back into the mid-level groove of its predecessor. With McEntire contributing more and more overdubbed keyboard textures, the album finds the group veering closer to art-rock, an indulgence largely mitigated by Prekop’s still-evident playfulness and melodic gift. The ten songs, which are crammed with enough detail to reward close attention but sufficiently pleasant to function well as background music, breeze by like a calm summer day.
The third Sea and Cake album released inside a 13-month span finds the group’s formula wearing thin. Where most of Prekop’s previous output shuffles, The Biz meanders; dynamic grooves give way to lazy jamming, hooks are outnumbered by pointless riffing and some of the mellower material would be right at home on a lite-rock radio station. A major disappointment.
The band regained some of its focus by the time it released The Fawn 18 months later. Although still rooted in jazzy-pop, this is an altogether quieter affair, giving two of the band’s strongest undercurrents — Claridge’s wonderfully elastic basslines and McEntire’s melodic keyboard arrangements — far greater prominence than they’d previously enjoyed. There’s barely a guitar to be heard on the opener, “Sporting Life.” When the band does settle into more familiar instrumentation, as on “Do Now Fairly Well” or “There You Are,” the results are more fragile and melancholy than anything else in the back catalogue. It may be a far cry from the breezy exuberance of the early records, but The Fawn is ultimately successful in conveying its sense of quiet, unobtrusive beauty.
Following quickly on The Fawn‘s tail, the Two Gentlemen EP is a largely inconsequential selection of remixes by ubiquitous Chicago soundheads (Bundy K Brown, Casey “Designer” Rice and Jim O’Rourke) plus a brace of mellow electronic instrumentals apparently made by Prekop on his own.
The Sea and Cake went on hiatus for the remainder of the decade, although the individual members were far from inactive. Prekop teamed up with the rhythm section of Josh Abrams (bass) and Chad Taylor (drums) for his self-titled solo debut. Produced by Jim O’Rourke, the record is both engaging and pleasantly low-key, drawing primarily on the Sea and Cake’s sunnier side. It threatens to lose its way near the end, but redeems itself with “So Shy,” a relaxed pop tune replete with ba-da-bahs and the indie version of a Bacharach string arrangement.
When the Sea and Cake did finally return to active service, it was with the lackluster Oui, a record which adheres closely to the formula but fails to generate any sort of spark from it. The experiments with arrangement are less successful (“The Leaf” replaces guitar, bass and drums with repetitive vibraphone lines that wouldn’t sound out of place on a low-budget soundtrack) and even the more engaging songs (“Midtown” or the shuffly “Afternoon Speaker”) sound like they’re struggling with a lack of inspiration.
Fortunately One Bedroom — again released after a three-year gap — teems with all the life that the band omitted from Oui. The chimey guitars and shuffling rhythms are bolstered by a variety of sequenced electronics — the magnificent “Hotel Tell” even goes so far as to drop something not dissimilar from a house beat — and for the first time since Nassau, there’s even a little bit of distortion to scuff the pop sheen. One Bedroom also introduces the band’s first ever recorded cover, a version of Bowie’s “Sound + Vision” which simultaneously does justice to the original and sounds perfectly at home.
With the band’s “other pursuits” providing a constant distraction — Claridge, Prewitt and Prekop have all had some success in visual arts and McEntire remains an in-demand producer — and no obvious internal strife, it is entirely possible that the Sea and Cake will continue to release records for as long as the spirit moves them. And while they may never again be fixtures on the indie hotlists, their recent recordings prove that they are still a band with the power to delight and surprise.