Misheard lyrics are an age-old, unavoidable problem in rock music (and the inspiration for some great YouTube satires), but one band took advantage of the phenomenon. While listening to fellow Chicago indie group Gastr del Sol, they misheard the title of the song “The C in Cake.” And so, The Sea and Cake was born. Sound crazy? Not when you consider that they’ve been performing and recording together since 1994.
Lead vocalist/guitarist Sam Prekop started the band with bassist Eric Claridge, adding drummer John McEntire and guitarist Archer Prewitt (who had the coolest day job at the time – as a colorist for Marvel comics!). They wasted no time in releasing their first CD, a self-titled album that immediately earned them attention for its opening track, “Jacking the Ball.” Of course, that’s a play on “Ballin’ the Jack,” an early 20th-century popular tune made famous by Danny Kaye.
Although the lyrics don’t have an obvious meaning, and Prekop is famously hard to understand, the song became an instant indie classic. It even has its own entry on UrbanDictionary.com, which describes its title thus: “Used in the right context it can be interpreted as some sort of bizzare [sic] sexual innuendo that no one gets.” Come to think of it, that’s not a bad overall definition of indie rock.
What you immediately notice about “Jacking the Ball” is the irresistible opening instrumental hook and the skill with which it’s played. In the early albums, The Sea and Cake focused on acoustic textures (I’m including electric guitars and bass used with non-experimental sounds). The style is simultaneously energetic yet laid back, combining elements of ska, Latin, and jazz. Prekop’s guttural vocal, alternating with quiet falsetto, sells the nonsensical lyrics as if they were profound insights. If that’s not the job of young songwriters, I’m not sure what is.
The title track from their second album, The Biz (1995), shows that the fragmentary style of the “Jacking the Ball” lyrics was not a fluke. It’s how Prekop and Co. write songs. At least with “The Biz” you get a better sense of a meaning, with lines like “I may try to stay misunderstood.” There’s a whiff of solitude and rebellion.
The dissonance caused by the choppy, breathless vocal line against the whining drone of a synth is its own kind of rebellion. Forget irresistible hooks – this one challenges you to dare to keep listening, let alone find the downbeat. Prekop’s voice has a remoteness that reminds me of Robert Smith (The Cure):
Skipping past the other 1995 album, Nassau, takes us to 1997’s The Fawn, a benchmark in the band’s stylistic development. From this album to the present they have let electronic sounds drive their arrangements. The title song, “Fawn,” is an unbroken wall of synth, completely different from the individualized playing on earlier albums. Even Prekop’s voice is changed -- breathier and smoother -- and the melody lines more mellow, the lyric lines longer.
But just when you think you’ve pegged their new act, The Sea and Cake reaches back to its influences. “The Ravine,” also from The Fawn, is a breakup song relying on a range of acoustic hand percussion for its winsome tone:
No grass grows under this band. In the early 2000s they made the albums Oui and One Bedroom. I’ll fast-forward to Everybody, from 2007. “Lightning” has a bossa nova vibe and typically enigmatic lyrics but an appealing beat. It’s a good demonstration of the band’s typical emotional distance; it’s partly Prekop’s vocal delivery, but it’s also the instrumentals – arranged without any dramatic arc. The title of the song might refer to just watching lightning in a natural setting, but then there are lines like “And we thought you’d come alive / but you broke down on me” that hint at a Frankenstein reference. The music itself offers no clue, of course.
The Sea and Cake comes across as grown up, even middle-aged, in the 2012 album, Runner. Their sound is smoother and energy-efficient, relying on rhythmic tricks like the perpetual motion. The song “Neighbors and Township” seems to be about settling into life, maybe giving up on certain dreams. You’ll hear phrases like “washed-up thoughts,” “ephemeral,” “year after year”; in case you haven’t figured it out yet, this band has no truck with poetic clarity. The jazz-like sound comes from adding a dissonant note to major chords to form what’s sometimes called a “mu chord,” common in jazz and the go-to harmonic building block for Steely Dan.
After nearly two decades of band stability, fans of The Sea and Cake must have been traumatized when Eric Claridge said farewell in 2013. It looked like the end: Prekop and Prewitt got busy on solo albums, while McEntire poured energy into his producing and engineering business. But, as it turned out, there’s still more cake in the sea. It just took a few years to drift ashore.
The beginning of 2018 saw the release of Any Day, written and recorded by Prekop, Prewitt, and McEntire with help from colleagues such as legendary session flutist/clarinetist Paul Von Mertens. (It’s well worth mentioning that the band has been with the same indie record company, Thrill Jockey, since they started in 1994.)
In the title track, the band is sounding more down to earth, more acoustic. The synth is pushed to the background when it does finally come in. They still have their jazzy, toe-tapping groove. The message is clear: these guys are not going anywhere.