On music: Rock cake

The Sea and Cake have made a 'rock album', It sounded like a bad idea - but by the end of the last track, only a fool would not be converted

What joy! The month of May will bring not only the final resignation of our walking ghost of a prime minister, but a new album by a Chicago-based troupe called the Sea and Cake. It's called Everybody, which presumably represents a hipster in-joke about the fact that if any group is unfamiliar with the business of appealing to the world and his wife, it is probably this one.

By way of an explanation, a story. In early 2003, I was on holiday, happily driving through a rural corner of Louisiana, and listening to KLSU, the college radio station run from that top-hole seat of learning, Louisiana State University (namechecked on Randy Newman's irony-anthem Rednecks as follows: "College men from LSU/ Went in dumb, come out dumb too"). And then I heard it: a gloriously strange sound, all skittering drums, breathy vocals and guitars that alternately droned and clanged. So, at the next petrol station - partly because when you do things like this in America, it feels ace - I pulled over, asked for a phone directory, and called the station.

"KLSU!" said a voice.

"Sorry to bother you," I said, like an English person. "This might sound strange, but what was the last-but-one record you played?"

"Well, what did it sound like?"

Rather than a phone booth, I was using one of those coin-operated stand-alone phones you also get in crap B&Bs, and the conversation was thus audible to the people queuing to pay for gasoline - as I recall, a fella who looked like he had been plucked from The Dukes of Hazzard and a police officer. But I didn't care. "Krautrock loungecore," I said.

"Oh, that's the Sea and Cake," said the man from KLSU. "The album's called The Fawn."

So it was that three days later, I found that CD - modestly encased in a cream-coloured cover featuring what looked like a low-rise block of flats - and played it over and over. It was not a huge surprise to discover that their drummer was John McEntire, one of the brains behind Tortoise, the long-standing jazz-inclined pioneers of the genre that, thanks to the estimable rock writer Simon Reynolds, was once known as post-rock. I was baffled by their lyrics, but that didn't much matter. A beautiful song called Sporting Life, for example, seemed to feature such lines as "So far, so long, came to the sea/ Bald head, all of them, everyone's there". That added to its air of gorgeous mystery. That is not an idle description, either: at their best, TS&C do what only a few musicians can, and evoke the cosmic stuff that mere words get nowhere near.

Now, according to the group, their latest work is a "rock album", which at first did not sound like a good idea at all. There again, these are restless, sophisticated, envelope-pushing people we are dealing with - vocalist Sam Prekop, for example, is about to publish a book of his photography in Japan - so if they want to take a postmodern detour into the kind of musical aesthetics they once seemed set against, who are we to complain? You cannot, I am afraid, have your Sea and Cake and eat it.

Anyway, their new, more linear(ish) sound is not exactly Bryan Adams-esque, and by the end of the hulking penultimate track, only a fool would not be converted. The prosaically titled Left On is a mesmeric homage to those 1970s German pioneers Neu!, but a lot more besides. As with David Bowie's Sound and Vision - which the Sea and Cake capably covered four years ago - the vocals don't come in until long after the song has got going, which is a cool trick that most idiot bands run away from because it means they won't get played by Colin Murray. It should really be the album's opening overture, because in so perfectly showcasing TS&C's wonders, it opens up even some of the initially duff-sounding tracks and thus reveals that, in Sea and Cake-land, all is still well.

So, if they have any kind of ad budget, here's a quote: "Everybody should buy Everybody! It's top." I won't even charge for that.


John Harris

The GuardianTramp

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