the sea
and cake

Forgive me if I have troubled you with this one before, but it's such a great story. So, sometime back in January 1995, I'd been down to Brighton for the day, determined to make the most of a rare day's leave, but the weather was against me. So much against me in fact that I was not even able to venture out onto the front, so fierce was the wind and driving rain. So I chose to venture back to the capital, thinking at least that my parka might dry out on the Thameslink service, alongside the sodden teens with their dripping fake MA1 flying jackets and their leggings giving them the appearance of mutant baby giraffes.

Anyway, instinct and fate led me to Covent Garden and the homely Rough Trade basement, only to find a group playing to a couple of dozen assorted lost souls. Now this was not a reason to be cheerful per se. Apart from Luscious Jackson, I was not interested in groups. I did not need boys with guitars sailing through the spaces between stars. No, I was too busy with my Black Dog, Autechre, Mo'Wax, Skylab, old dub and punk, Northern Soul and folk, whatever. Also, shift work did not make going out to gigs easy, and I had developed a hatred of being in crowded, confined spaces. Basically I had been to too many gigs, and would rather stay in with John Buchan's Richard Hannay adventures or O. Henry's shortstories.

However, I soon saw the light, and was won over by the waves of serious intent and slow-burning melodies. The singer, like a forsaken angel, had his eyes shut tight as he reached out, while by his side the guitarist had the precision and dextreity of a surgeon, and he similarly seemed to be elsewhere. Strangely though, the focal point was the drummer, who certainly did not indulge in unneccesary showmanship but held one's attention by the way he broke up the sound, like Style Scott, Max Roach, Jaki Leibezeit.

Song after song, each was a revelation, as I expected something to disturb the flow, and mar the miracle. Yet, no, the guitars stayed bristly and bright, the beat stayed jazzy and irregular. No rock solos, no pop cliches, and all I knew was that they were called The Sea & Cake and were evidently American, and in fact were evidently the best American group since The Feelies - a very valid reference point, particularly as they looked not unlike The Feelies in their boho preppie heyday circa 'Crazy Rhythms', one of THE great LPs.

Anyway, I came away, told a few people, filed the name away as one to cherish, vowed to keep an eye out for The Sea & Cake in future, but soon slipped back into preoccupation with other areas of activity, specifically jungle, trip hop, that sort of thing.

It may have been as late as June when, strangely, I'd been down to Brighton again for the day. yet, this time, it was so hot you couldn't move. So, back I came to Neal's Yard, intending to get Labradford's 'A Stable Reference' or the Red Snapper compilation in Rough Trade or something. Now, if you know that shop, you'll know that the window display next to the Slam City Skates entrance is the definitve guide to what's happening, and there, purposefully prominent, was an LP by The Sea & Cake called 'Nassau'. After aproximately two split seconds consideration, I descended into the basement, paid up and rushed away homewards. Throughout that long hot summer, 'Nassau' stayed with me more than any other record. Initially though, 'Nassau' brought back all those feelings of delight from January, and I even recognised a few of the songs, particulalrly ' Parasol' and 'Alone For The Moment', which now rate as the greatest post-Velvets ballads, up there with Vic Godard's 'Make Me Sad', Go-Betweens' 'Cattle and Cane', Josef K's 'It's Kinda Funny', James' 'Hymn From A Village', the Jasmine Minks' 'Cold Heart', or in other words, the greatest songs ever. The other really impressive aspect of 'Nassau' was the two outstanding instrumentals; 'A Man Who Never Sees A Pretty Girl That He Doesn't Love Her A Little' and 'Earth Star'. Both wrap you in melodic velvet, so you have to close your eyes and hug yourself tightly, as the tunes stealthily prowl by. The latter was sampled by Jim O'Rourke for his Initial Gesture Protraction Tortoise remix, which brings me to the Tortoise connection. My first surprise with 'Nassau' was its cover's apt similarity with the Black Dog's 'Spanners', then I noticed John McEntire played drums and produced the LP at Idful Studios, Chicago, while the record was licensed from Thrill Jockey, home of the mighty Tortoise, who had been lubricating my living room for the previous few months.

So, suddenly, American pop was transformed in my mind, and became ultra cool. Luscious Jacksoon, Tortoise, Labradford, The Sea & Cake: not since the days of 1979-81 had the US offered such pop possibilities.

Of course, plenty of people started to notice, from Mo'Wax to The Wire, and it became easier to trace the trails and tributaries of some of the earlier Chicago goings-on. I sson found an earlier (first) Sea & Cake LP, which had been released on Rough Trade around the time that I'd stumbled upon them playing live. So, here's two classic LPs and nary a word in our illustrious press. One's worst fears confirmed or what? Yet before you know it, there's a third, even greater Sea & Cake LP. Can you believe it, three brilliant LPs in a matter of months? Shows everyone up.

By now, I'm rabid with delight, boring everyone with the news that Sam Prekop and Archer Prewitt are out and out Gods, but still no attention, despite a swelling underground fan base, helped along no doubt by the Tortoise ties. Yet, even supporting Tortoise at a triumphant LA2 London show, the Sea & Cake manage to evade any media accolade, which is no mean feat, as anyone who's ever spoken to John McEntire seems to be receiving acclaim left, right and centre.

Now, I've got to the stage where I've become quite cynical again about American groups, having been caught out by being too zealous, ending up with abysmal records by sub-Spacemen 3 shoegazers. No big deal, it's the same with all music. There are time wasters on Kranky, Moving Shadow, Wall Of Sound, Warp. There were wastes of space on Blue Note, Studio 1 and Stax too.

However, I'm having more fun with old Sea & Cake connected combos. Pre-Sea & Cake, singer/guitarist Sam Prekop was in The Shrimp Boat with other Chicago luminaries Brad Wood and Casey Rice (Peter Frame where are you when we need you?) where he revealed a few Talking Heads tendencies, but basically he was already displaying his divine gift for lilting, understated melodies on their two LPs for Rough Trade, soon after the label's rebirth.

Guitarist Archer Prewitt (a character in an O.Henry story if ever there was one) seems to have been doing his own thing with a group called The Coctails, who have a very interesting compilation out of minimal and doleful songs, evoking everything from the Durutti Column to the Style Council's early acoustic interludes, from the Young Marble Giants' 'Testcard'' and The Gist (Stuart Moxham produces two tracks) to Josef K and The Orchids. The trouble is, I don't think I've even begun to scratch the surface, and I get frightened about what I'm missing. Just think, if it hadn't been blowing up a gale down in Brighton...

Kevin Pearce, 1996.