A man who knows tells me that Mike Skinner of the Streets uses the word 'subtle' to describe something he finds boring. I can imagine most listeners' first reaction to One bedroom would be: 'This is boring.' 'No it's not,' Mick would reply, 'it's subtle.' There are those who would say that the geezer-ish, garage-fuelled sound of the Streets is boring. 'No it's not,' I'd say to them, 'it's obvious.' Does this mean we're back at the old impasse of personal taste? That boredom, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder? Well, yes, but I think what you might call listening history or the development of taste also comes into it. It takes a lot of listening to come to the point where One bedroom is typical of your favourite music. An equivalent evolution is the journey that the Sea and Cake have undertaken to get from their first outing to this, their sixth. You probably aren't going to like the Sea and Cake unless you've built up a stack of albums by increasingly subtle musicians, just as they themselves had to make their previous records to be able to come up with this one. Twenty years or so of taking chances and following connections back and forth through time ought to do it. Similarly, if I was fourteen, putting away childish things and in need of direction, Mike Skinner's lack of subtlety might be just what I was looking for, while the Sea and Cake's lack of obviousness would surely cut no ice.
And yet this is the Sea and Cake at their most purposeful and immediate since The biz. I dare say that's only apparent to a fan, because immediacy isn't the group's cause; mood is. There's a definite sense of upswing from Oui. With each album, the Sea and Cake have refined and refocussed their sound, varying the angle of attack. On One bedroom they move from the drifting, dreamy mid-tempo that was the staple of Oui to an upbeat, sparkling, sunshine Sea and Cake; in places we are talking disco rhythms and blissful moods. From the opening 'Four corners' to the closing crack at Bowie's 'Sound and vision', the album has a propulsive, tensile strength.
The Sea and Cake share percussive wiz John McEntire with Tortoise. I found their last album subtle beyond measure, whereas I am happy to let the Sea and Cake bore the pants off me for as long as they like. One difference is Sam Prekop, who here continues to skirt around whatever his subject matter is, while always giving the listener the sense that he's very much at home in his lyrical and emotional universe. Not one to impose himself on his own songs, he nevertheless gives the group a focus that Tortoise's instrumental work-outs have lost. Sam may be sparing with the melodies, necessarily staying within his limited range, but they're there - and 'Le Baron' and 'Shoulder length' are going to sound even better come summer.
The Sea and Cake have achieved an intimacy with digital recording beyond the reach of most others. With McEntire on board, they never embarrass themselves when mixing acoustic instruments and digitally processed sound, and indeed, the version of 'Sound and vision' could not be bettered. It starts with a false trail, as if it's maybe going to be a weird, glitchy barely recognisable variation on a theme, then reveals itself as a technologically intensified strain of the Bowie song. In comparison to the other tracks, it sounds like it got the lion's share of the production budget, but I guess that this is not something the Sea and Cake have to worry about, doing whatever's necessary - their own songs require less, while Bowie's required more.
For me the Sea and Cake are the model pop group. Instead of dragging themselves through an endless cycle of faux-musketeer world tours and album promotions, until the spirit has long since left the music and they all hate each other, the band members go off and do their own thing, then reassemble invigorated and raring to go, or keen to dream. Long may they keep rolling, subtly refining what they do.
© 2003 Daniel Williams