With a name that usually elicits the unversed to respond, "The Sea and what?" Chicago's The Sea and Cake claims some of indie rock's elite as founding and continuous members: Drummer John McEntire is a sought-after engineer/producer, twisting knobs for Stereolab, Trans Am and others, as well as being one-sixth of percussive post-rock progenitors Tortoise; guitarist Archer Prewitt is a well-respected solo artist, releasing a highly lauded recording last year (and also the mind and pen behind the underground Sof' Boy comics); and bassist Eric Claridge was in the late, lamented Shrimp Boat with vocalist/guitarist Sam Prekop -- a much-celebrated painter, photographer and solo artist in his own right.
"I think The Sea and Cake is unique in that we've been working together as a group for so long. That's pretty rare -- at least these days. Even though we've all done other things in that time, we've developed a sort of particular musical language that can be attained no other way," says a sleepy Prekop from his Chicago home, commenting on S+C's lengthy 10-year career. "I think what keeps it fresh is that we all also do something else. Though, in some ways, it's a bit of a drawback that sometimes `after taking time off to paint`, I need to get reacquainted with the music."
After their stunning self-titled debut, and a series of innovative, jazz-leaning explorations in the mid-'90s ("Nassau" and "The Biz"), S+C's experimental urgency has ebbed considerably, evolving into a tepid concoction of flat funk, modest bossa nova and subdued pop. Though the last two outings ("Oui" and "One Bedroom") have been remarkable for their consistency, they've also been stunted by an increasingly homogeneous technique: "We don't impose strict guidelines or preconcepts on ourselves," says Prekop, who is the group's primary songwriter. "We sort of know how we work, and we pay attention to what's happening as we're working.
"As far as my approach `to songwriting`, I try to keep an open perspective," he continues. "I go through periods where I'm inspired by one thing or another ... and though I never consciously try to distill an influence, the things that move me are probably there in the back of my mind." Yet the avant-garde intricacies and extemporizations culled from Charles Mingus and Miles Davis that once made the early releases so sparklingly inventive are long gone. They've been replaced lately by songs so effortlessly melodic they're instantly recognizable, though, sadly, just as forgettable.
Perhaps the side-project moonlightings of all the band members is spreading thin the creativity that sparked such promise in the group early on. The majority of the songs now rest on the formula of Prekop's prismatic vocal meanderings -- sung like an overcaffeinated Chet Baker -- set adrift atop understated neo-bop grooves that, while technically proficient, immediately fade into a colorless background.
"The songs are meaningful to me in that the words are interesting as poetry," says Prekop, "but sometimes I think it would be helpful if I decided to champion a cause."
Given the pronounced musicianship of each of the four Seamen, and the proliferation of bands that The Sea and Cake has spawned (and will surely continue to spawn), fans and critics alike will continue to hail each successive record as more creatively focused than the last -- afraid to see a band that may be past its virility just riding on its storied legacy. It's elementary that being in a band with the same four guys will develop a taut chemistry, but the only way to arrive at a masterwork is to challenge the listener and take risks with the music. Regrettably, S+C opts for the stay-the-course philosophy again and again.
However, being that this is their first -- and probably only -- cruise through Florida, it's advisable to try and get a glimpse of a group that at least used to be influential. Here's hoping they pull off some of the older material.