I have a confession to make: songs by the Sea and Cake blend together for me like James Bond movies. I am as unable to tell one from the other as I would be to describe the plots of Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice. It seems to me as if they’ve written one very long, very pretty song, from which they perform excerpts, with occasional pauses for applause and to remember how the next bit goes. Not that that’s a bad thing. Nobody criticizes the Bond films for being indistinguishable, and the Sea and Cake should be treated with the same leniency.
The representative moment of the Sea and Cake’s concert at the Bowery Ballroom came near the end of the third excerpt. Guitarists Archer Prewitt and Sam Prekop, and bassist Eric Claridge, dropped out, leaving drums and electronics still playing. Immediately, all three were staring down at their Boss chromatic tuners, checking each string to make sure that it hadn’t slipped a microtone during the first few songs. It was an extraordinary display of synchronized anal-retentiveness, and that’s when I realized that these guys didn’t really want to be playing a concert at all, they wanted to be in a studio, where they could control and micromanage every sound. Because the Sea and Cake really are masters of the studio. Few bands can boast a sound as finely calibrated; Prekop’s breezy, feather-light strumming with Prewitt’s clean, clear lines on top, Claridge’s ornate basslines and John McEntire’s bubbly drums below. And in the middle, Prekop’s vocals, more breathed than sung, the perfect touchstone for this lighter-than-air sound. Recently, on Four Bedrooms, things have gotten even better with the addition of a river of gurgling electronics further liquefying the whole sound.
Still, with the exception of those electronics, very little has changed over the course of their five albums, and the sound has started to feel a little too clean, almost antiseptic at times. Archer Prewitt’s excellent solo recordings have a similar problem, but when I saw him live last year it was near perfect, as if the unavoidable messiness of playing live was just what he needed to liven the music up a bit. I had been hoping that the effect of the Sea and Cake live would be similar, but I was much disappointed.
The problems started with McEntire’s drumming. He rushed consistently, always a step ahead of his bandmates, and in a group that relies on complete synchronicity, this is a deadly sin. Mind you, McEntire did at least provide some life on stage. You get the sense that a single drop of sweat would be anathema to the impeccably groomed Prekop and Prewitt, but he played with a kind of calorie-burning jitteriness, and was drenched by the second song. He also, rather endearingly, sang along with all the songs, with considerably more zeal than Prekop.
Other than McEntire, the band simply looked and sounded a bit bored. The sound had no sparkle to it, and they seemed to know it. At one point, Prekop broke out with a completely unexpected and uncharacteristic skronky atonal solo, but that was one of the few signs of life. Still, I have an unshakeable fondness for Prewitt, indie rock’s most stylishly named performer, and with the looks of a ‘40s film star to boot. He didn’t seem exactly pumped up, but he was happily off in his own little world, eyes closed, quietly working his usual threads-of-gold magic on the guitar.
Still, the crowd was enthusiastic, and the band played a lengthy, 14-song set. As an encore they did a beautiful rendition of Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” (yes, I can tell Bowie songs apart). The Sea and Cake really are a great band, and people will keep showing up, if for no other reason than to hear their favorite songs played live, brilliantly or not. But unless you’re a diehard fan, you might as well save your money and your time for a band that has something to offer in concert that you can’t get on their recordings.