... your heart out
... so amaze me, so amuse me
into London to mooch round the record shops. The Rough Trade shop in Covent Garden was the best place to go at the time. And anyone familiar with the shop will know they occasionally put on live performances, usually in that odd space under the spiral staircase. I fondly remember seeing DJ Shadow behind the counter, demonstrating his turntable skills for a small group of us. And I recall Ui playing there on the same day England were due to play Spain in the Euro ‟96 tournament. ... so amaze me, so amuse me December 2012: I note that there is a new record by The Sea and Cake. I like The Sea and Cake very much. But how many records by The Sea and Cake do I need? There are certain records by The Sea and Cake I do need very much. They are among my very favourite things. I used to have a favourite line about liking records by The Sea and Cake because they sound like The Sea and Cake. I remain fascinated by The Sea and Cake‟s constancy. They have turned constancy into an art form. The Sea and Cake are probably my favourite pop group. Or more specifically they put together my favourite sequence of recordings. And I feel fate brought us together. I make no apologies for repeating once more a story about how I chanced upon The Sea and Cake, or more specifically how I stumbled upon The Sea and Cake playing live in the basement that was the Rough Trade shop in Covent Garden, down the stairs from the strange world of Slam City Skates. This was January 1995, I think, and I was working on the railway at the time. One of the perks of the job was free or heavilydiscounted train travel, and for some reason, on a rare Saturday off, I„d gone down to Brighton for the day but it was blowing a gale and raining torrentially. So I changed my plans and got the train back
Ui on the day were far better, far funkier, than their records would now suggest, even though it was hard not to snigger at the group‟s very uncool “science graduates from 1973” image. It would also have seemed absurd then to suggest that the group‟s leader Sasha Frere-Jones would go on to be a respected critic for The New Yorker. But then it would once have been crazy to imagine the drummer from Orange Juice as a contributing editor for Vanity Fair. Most times that we see groups live we know someone will be playing, and usually know who will be performing. But on this Saturday afternoon it hadn‟t even occurred to me that anyone would be playing in the Rough Trade shop. Finding The Sea and Cake playing in the Rough Trade basement space was entirely unexpected. And finding The Sea and Cake playing unexpectedly was completely disorientating. Initially I had no idea that the group playing was The Sea and Cake. At the time I had no idea who The Sea and Cake were. I liked what I saw and heard very much. But it all had a certain dreamlike quality, which was pretty unsettling. Maybe it was a dream. I have never seen or heard anyone else mention it. There were, I guess, 20 odd people present, politely nodding along and tapping their toes. I seem to recall a couple of the
Huggy Bear faction being there, but I wouldn‟t swear to it. What was disconcerting and disorientating about The Sea and Cake? Well, initially, superficially, eerily, they reminded me of adventurous groups I‟d been emotionally involved with a few years before, and brought back memories of the many times I had put on these recondite rogues in quaint central London pub function rooms for small, enthralled audiences. I was scarred by those times, bitter about things even, and I really, really was not interested in seeing a regular guitar/bass/drums outfit. At the time I wrote an article which is still available on the Tangents website, and I think it captures the way I saw things: “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 short stories. “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 dexterity of a surgeon, and he similarly seemed to be elsewhere. Strangely though, the focal point was the drummer, who certainly did not indulge in unnecessary showmanship but held one's attention by the way he broke up the sound, like Style Scott, Max Roach, Jaki Liebezeit. “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 ...”
Some months later, returning to the Rough Trade shop in Neal‟s Yard, Covent Garden, I saw a copy of a CD by The Sea and Cake displayed in the window, and knew I had to have it. This was Nassau, and I think what amazed me, or amused me, at the time was the striking similarity between the cover and that of Spanners by The Black Dog, a recent favourite from the Warp label. That seemed wonderfully appropriate somehow. It still does. And I‟m pretty sure that it was only when I got it home that I realised that The Sea and Cake‟s remarkable drummer was John McEntire, who was simultaneously a member of Tortoise and The Sea and Cake. This, also, seemed too good to be true, as Tortoise had around that time become massive favourites of mine with their first LP, and their strange, meandering, jazzy, dubby Spaghetti Western soundscapes redolent of Paris Texas relocated East of the River Nile.
Nassau delights and surprises me now every bit as much as it did in 1995. I still feel a sense of shock as the opening track Nature Boy comes haring out of the traps. Its audacity tickles me. The appropriation of such a familiar title is cheeky, but apt. Is there an entry in the Great American Songbook with a stranger provenance? The story of its composer eden ahbez is one of the most curious in popular music. And there remain the questions about whether the song borrowed from Dvorak and Jewish folk song or whether the inspiration for this tale about a strange enchanted boy really came to eden in the mist of Californian mountains and is in fact his own story. This Sea and Cake song Nature Boy boldly takes the frantic aspects of the Velvets‟ 1969 Live template and pulls off a stunt so few have managed to execute with aplomb. In other words, it soars with that unbeatable lightness of being, right from the alarming tintinnabulation of the opening moments through to the delicately disintegrating denouement. The Velvets‟ influence has been perniciously pervasive in pop generally, which is strange. Where The Sea and Cake succeeded was by paying attention to the tension, the balances and the bottom end. Wire, too, were great at using dynamic tension on songs such as Mannequin and i.
There was also a sense of separation in that sound. The Cure had it too at the beginning, almost uniquely so. By the time The Sea and Cake got going they were particularly radical at using space in their songs. In pretty much all forms of music there was the phenomenon of splurge, a slushy sound that was pop‟s equivalent of the smoothie, all the oh-so-good-for-you ingredients tossed into the blender or processor with a certain disdain. But with Wire‟s Mannequin, The Cure‟s Jumping Someone Else‟s Train, The Sea and Cake‟s Nature Boy there was the opportunity to savour distinct flavours, and distinguish between the top (the treble, the six-strings and vocals) and the bottom (the bass and drums). And oddly it was often the bass that would be the lead melodic instrument in The Sea and Cake, with the guitars as rhythmic colouration. Eric Claridge who plays the bass for The Sea and Cake has been in many ways the group‟s secret ingredient, with his patterns providing a possibly illogical counterpoint to what else is going on. Listening today to Nature Boy by The Sea and Cake I can see why I might have thought of The Feelies‟ Crazy Rhythms and its velveteen reverberations. I suspect a closer comparison could be elements of the Flying Nun sound: The Clean, The Verlaines, The Bats, Look Blue Go Purple, Bird Nest Roys, Able Tasmans. But The Clean in particular. They got that Velvets thing just so right somehow: the propulsion and the prickliness and the precariousness and the punch. And they had hits from the word go in New Zealand without any of that UK concern about adapting to suit the corporates. The track that follows Nature Boy is Parasol, an exquisite example of what The Sea and Cake could do with the ballad format. It‟s one of those songs that makes you want to hug someone close, your face averted so they can‟t see your tears, perhaps they or even you wouldn‟t even understand what
seem more fluid, somewhat sprightlier than Tortoise, and more inclined to make you dance. That word „dance‟ again. And there‟s the rub.
they‟re for anyway, those tears. I am someone who unashamedly loves the Velvets‟ ballads, and Parasol has oh the same pain as some of those: Stephanie Says, Candy Says, Sunday Morning, Pale Blue Eyes, I‟m Set Free, etc. And, god, the times I played those songs in the 1980s. By the mid-„90s, when The Sea and Cake appeared, I thought I was immune to the charms of Velveteen ballads, but Parasol just tears me apart every time. Maybe it‟s Archer Prewitt‟s ghostly harmonies. Maybe it‟s the way Sam Prekop lopes through the lyrics so intimately, the missing link between Nat King Cole and Lou Reed. Maybe it‟s the strings, which are not quite of a grand Gordon Jenkins silkiness but nevertheless lend a sophisticated suggestion of classical chamber music to proceedings. Maybe it‟s the delicate guitar melody discreetly picked out, or the non-fussiness of the drums. But, oh my, the whole is gorgeous and oddly moving. And the next track, the enchantingly named A Man Who Never Sees A Pretty Girl That He Doesn‟t Love Her A Little, highlights the third part of The Sea and Cake‟s magical formula, after the dance number and the ballad comes the eloquent, elegant instrumental. On this track it‟s easy to see where the critical shorthand about The Sea and Cake‟s jazzy structures comes from. The group creates an intricate pattern of sound, broken up by John‟s muted dub explosion drums, which here
The Sea and Cake have created great dance music. This is perfectly illustrated by The Biz LP which seemed to follow only a matter of months after the funky Nassau. The Biz is one of the LPs most inclined to make me dance. It‟s got a really natural groove to it. But the sound of The Sea and Cake wouldn‟t necessarily be classed as „dance music‟ in the sense that the term has come to be understood. And the use of the phrase „dance music‟ to apply solely to electronic club-oriented sounds is absurd and aggravating. People have been dancing since the morning when the world was begun. The Chills‟ Pink Frost is as much dance music as Ride on Time by Black Box. Different people dance in different ways. Different things make different people dance. I love the story about Robert and Alfie Wyatt telling Paul Weller about how the early mods used to dance to Olé by John Coltrane. Now that‟s what I call dance music. There are subtle differences between Nassau and The Biz. The latter has more in the way of keyboards and electronic colouration which fills out the sound somewhat. This may have had something to do with Silver Apples, Cluster, Kraftwerk, that sort of thing. But what is really striking about The Biz is Sam‟s singing which links directly to the Chicago Soul tradition and explicitly to the works of Curtis Mayfield. When people have written about The Sea and Cake and the context of their Chicago roots they tend to overlook the city‟s soul heritage. And I don‟t just mean Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, but the work of other artists, arrangers, producers and labels such as the Chi-Lites, Terry Callier, Billy Butler, Tyrone Davis, Johnny Pate, Carl Davis, Gerald Sims, Phil Wright, Charles Stepney, Richard Evans, Chess, OKeh, Brunswick, Curtom, and so on.
Our magic Sam has admitted to an infatuation with Curtis Mayfield, and this does show through on tracks like Sending and A Station in the Valley on The Biz. This was an infatuation I shared, and I think it‟s pertinent that when The Sea and Cake were in the ascendancy I was buying a lot of CDs that were old soul compilations, particularly on the Kent label. The first CD I ever bought, when I finally succumbed to the format, was The Definitive Impressions collection on Kent. And towards the end of the „90s Sequel did a nice series of double CD collections of Curtis‟ „70s recordings. Apart from the ineffable excellence of the work of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, part of the appeal has always been knowing the impact their music had on people. There‟s the ineluctable influence Curtis and the Impressions‟ deeply spiritual harmonies had on Jamaican music. And pertinently The Congos‟ classic Heart of the Congos set would, presumably in its 1996ish Blood and Fire reissue form, become a massive record for The Sea and Cake, one they‟ve referred to several times. And closer to home, when writing the sleeve notes for The New Religion, “a study in progressive pop” by Jimmy James and the Vagabonds, Peter Meaden paid tribute to the new music he‟d heard at The Scene and very few other places: “To our minds, it was, and is, the most exciting, melodically attractive and intelligent branch of pop. We were later to find the Record Mirror‟s Norman Jopling, also a long-term admirer of the work of the Impressions, had already given this music its perfect title: NEW WAVE RHYTHM AND BLUES. And this LP is our own „New Wave R&B‟ tribute to Curtis Mayfield and his arranger Johnny Pate, for in popdom no other team has contributed more.” The new groups of that time such as The Action and The Zombies were very much shaped by the inventive music of Motown,
Mirwood, the smoother, sweeter, more sophisticated soul sounds of Chicago. The Action covered the Impressions‟ I Love You (Yeah) and Maurice & the Radiants‟ Baby You‟ve Got It. And one of the joys of the internet age is coming across clips as wonderful as The Zombies on French TV ripping through a couple of Motown modern classics, looking achingly cool, somewhat belying their studious reputation. There was early on a real beat group, rhythm and soul, quality about The Sea and Cake, which was almost perversely radical in the then context of American Rock. In the lexicon of the Northern Soul scene there is the beat ballad, which is a fairly nebulous concept that can refer to the slower songs (perhaps ones with more guitars, perhaps more jazzy productions) favoured by dancers, which is a different thing than the legendary end-of-nighters. But the term is one I mentally associate with The Sea and Cake. They could compose beautiful beat ballads.
There is, I guess, a world of difference between the lyrical concerns of old soul 45s and what Sam is singing with The Sea and Cake. He has given us some of the most cryptic words in pop, but ones sung is such a way that it all sounds entirely natural. But more than that, it is as if the words make perfect sense and have the directness and emotional resonance of, say, The Choice of
Colors or Power to the People. I don‟t know if I ever grasp quite what Sam‟s specifically singing about, but it always seems to work. Elliptical, gibberish, stream of consciousness, abstract, absurd, surreal, Dadaist: these are the sorts of words writers reach for when considering what Sam‟s singing. Personally, predictably, I‟ve never been able to resist making the connection between Sam‟s words and those sung by Vic Godard on what is probably the most important record in my life, What‟s The Matter Boy? I‟ve had millions of ideas but I‟ve never really known what Vic‟s singing about on Empty Shell and Make Me Sad, say, but some combinations of words, some lines, just get you every time: “An old man sits, a tear in his eye ...”
And it‟s the same with Sam‟s songs. Interestingly, too, ever since The Sea and Cake strolled into my life I have grown increasingly accustomed to listening intently to singers using languages I have little knowledge of, savouring sad songs from around the world which allow the imagination to wander and to wonder but where also the voice becomes another instrument, so much so that it can be a sobering shock to come across the plain English and ponderous rhymes of the latest media favourites.
Nassau was and it wasn‟t the first Sea and Cake record. There was an earlier, eponymous debut CD by The Sea and Cake, recorded in September 1993, and released in the UK by Rough Trade, which was then in its strange interim incarnation. The Sea and Cake debut itself was a transitional record. Sam Prekop and Eric Claridge were with Geoff Travis‟ encouragement and financial backing in the early stages of setting up a new project. The great guitarist, or rather visionary, Archer Prewitt was recruited shortly before the sessions started, and John McEntire was enlisted while the recordings were being made in the Idful Music studio where he worked as an engineer. The Sea and Cake debut contains a number of songs which are readily identifiable as classical Sea and Cake or as Sea and Cake classics, such as the gorgeous Bring My Car I Feel To Smash It, So Long to the Captain and Showboat Angel. The inner sleeve features an Eric Claridge painting of Mingus, which points to Charlie as a major influence, though in the typical Sea and Cake way this is in a subtle, suggested sense rather than anything blatant like appropriating Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. It‟s possible to pick out the emerging Sea and Cake template on this debut, but there are variations such as Caribbean rhythms and JuJu Music/highlife guitar motifs and the sort of groove that was The Meters‟ metier. More incongruously the occasional bursts of saxophone from Brad Wood seem in The Sea and Cake scheme of things to be unnaturally demonstrative and almost intrusive. Brad Wood apparently went on to be a successful producer, but he had been an occasional member of Shrimp Boat, the group Sam Prekop and Eric Claridge emerged from the wreckage of. In the early „90s Rough Trade put out a couple of
Shrimp Boat LPs, but I had no idea they or the group even existed until I saw mentions of them as antecedents to The Sea and Cake. Were Shrimp Boat written about in the UK? I really have no idea. They were one hell of a strange group, though. If what Sam and Eric were to do with The Sea and Cake was to experiment endlessly with variations on a particular theme then somehow Shrimp Boat were the polar opposite. They were all over the place, musically, and I would struggle to think of any equivalent group that could cover as much ground in quite such a dramatic way. And the great thing about the strangeness of Shrimp Boat is that there was no sense of that dreadfully dull Butthole Surfers-style zaniness or exaggerated weirdness. They were simple a very, very odd pop group. There are some pretty straightforward moments on the two Shrimp Boat Rough Trade LPs, where the group impinges on the West Coast country rock/soul glories of London pub rock greats like Chilli Willi, Roogalator and Brinsley Schwartz, which is a long way from Chicago, or closer to their home the Talking Heads of Love Goes to a Building on Fire. But time has revealed more and more about Shrimp Boat. In 2004 AUM Fidelity put out a 4-CD collection of demos, live recordings, radio performances covering the group‟s progress from 1987 through to 1993 which gives a disorientating, detailed overview of what Shrimp Boat got up to. AUM then followed this in 2005 by reissuing 1989‟s Speckly, the first LP the group made, and the one which is perhaps their most beautiful and strange record. The Shrimp Boat repertoire or palette seems to have covered so much. You could say at times they were like the Art Ensemble of Chicago having a go at doing a hoedown or barn dance thing. This wasn‟t entirely without precedence. The great NRBQ have a long tradition of throwing Sun Ra covers into their sets, and Elvin Jones
appears in Zachariah, the classic rock „n‟ roll western alongside the James Gang and Country Joe and the Fish. There was also the Holy Modal Rounders/Fugs thing and the overlap with ESP-Disk. And wasn‟t Jonathan Richman‟s famous drummer D. Sharpe from an avant-garde jazz background?
I don‟t really know who or what Shrimp Boat were listening to (Tom Waits? Harry Partch? The Nightingales?), but they certainly sounded like they were having fun. In the beautiful booklet that comes with the AUM box set the group‟s friend Walter Andersons mentions how “well before the pre-eminence of genres like alt. country, Shrimp Boat‟s sound pointed forward while relishing past forms of timeless craft: bebop, country blues, mountain ballads and American popular songs.” The connection between Shrimp Boat and Rough Trade intrigues me. I wasn‟t completely ignorant about what the label was doing in the early „90s. Ultramarine and Spring Heel Jack were among my particular favourites. I had also tried hard to like Disco Inferno. Rough Trade around then also put out Vic Godard‟s Johnny Thunders as part of its Singles Club. But Shrimp Boat completely passed me by. I think around that time Geoff Travis and Jeannette Lee were managing the Cranberries and Pulp, and it‟s hard to
snigger and sneer. But then again, Geoff did provide the money which meant it was possible for Vic Godard and Edwyn Collins to make the End of the Surrey People LP and Geoff did give Sam Prekop some money to fund a new project when Shrimp Boat disintegrated. That‟s Geoff Travis for you: contradictory.
magnificence of these records means we can forgive Rough Trade for The Smiths, Microdisney, Easterhouse, Woodentops and all the other errors of the era. I like to think that Geoff Travis spotted something in Shrimp Boat that reminded him of those Pere Ubu and David Thomas records he persevered with. I have no idea if Shrimp Boat were familiar with those particular LPs, but I hope they were. That sequence of David Thomas records Rough Trade put out is gradually being revealed as the defining works of the time. Regardless of whether you consider David Thomas to be a Goon-ish, indulged idiotsavant or an awesome Orson Welles type figure who could be as sinister and difficult to understand as Harry Lime peering out from the shadows, laughing, these works were remarkable.
A lot of rubbish has been written about Rough Trade, and people do have a very particular image of the label. And yet in some ways Shrimp Boat fit perfectly into a certain Rough Trade tradition that draws on American roots and eccentricities: from Pere Ubu, Red Crayola, Panther Burns and Shockabilly to the pioneering country punk of Rank and File on to Jonathan Richman, Violent Femmes, Camper Van Beethoven, and so on. But in particular there is that persistence throughout the 1980s with the work of Pere Ubu and then the solo David Thomas projects, which prompted that quote from Green Gartside in Jamming! (from 1981 or 1982): “The one thing that still worries me is Rough Trade‟s A&R. They missed a lot of opportunities to wise up to the new populism, but instead kept paying for more Pere Ubu albums.” Rough Trade put out five David Thomas solo LPs between 1981 and 1987, and these overlapped with the last and greatest LP of the original Pere Ubu, Song of the Bailing Man. Now it‟s increasingly clear Geoff Travis‟ loyalty was well-placed, and the
The David Thomas solo records are notable too for his determination to involve English irregulars like Richard Thompson, and Henry Cow‟s Lindsay Cooper, and Chris Cutler, explicitly making the connection to the folk rock and free jazz progressive traditions when it really wasn‟t quite the thing to do. Oddly the great American original David Thomas got me listening to Henry Cow, for which I‟m grateful. That series of David Thomas records is full of surprises, and I suspect more and more will be revealed. Those LPs are great fun, wonderfully entertaining, and often extremely beautiful. They frequently seem nonsensical and absurd, but that is part of the charm. It is possible to pick them apart and analyse the ingredients: the cabaret and vaudevillian elements, the tradition of The Fool, suggestions of James Joyce and Brecht and Weill and magical toy shops, the absurd antics of provocateurs like Ken Campbell (whom Vic Godard is increasingly beginning to resemble), the echoes of old folk song, sea shanties, free jazz, polyrhythmic exotica, primitive rockabilly: it‟s a good plan. Or as David
sings: “I thought of a new way to say the same old thing”. That sentence, “I thought of a new way to say the same old thing”, might sum up The Sea and Cake‟s approach. Their 1997 LP The Fawn works with the formula but is more condensed, more concentrated. The opener, Sporting Life, unusually makes The Sea and Cake sound like one of their contemporaries, sharing the charming, chugging, choogling thing Stereolab perfected: that metronomic underground sound. Some overlap was understandable. Stereolab recorded most of their classic LPs, Emperor Tomato Ketchup and Dots and Loops, in Chicago with John McEntire producing. I suspect influences were ping ponging back and forth at the time The Fawn was made. One of the most enduring Stereolab songs is French Disko, and while the title has little to do with the fantastic lyrics or indeed the music I do wonder about Stereolab and French Disko. If at the time of The Fawn, say, I had been asked about French disco I think I would have referred straight away to Magic Fly by Space, one of the great electronic hits of the summer of 1977, with Jean Michel Jarre‟s Oxygene, The Crunch by The Rah Band, and of course the Munich disco sound. These sounds stimulated interest in electronic music, in tandem with the punk explosion, and it was only a matter of months away from Thomas Leer, Robert Rental, Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle‟s United. Stereolab‟s Tim Gane was a teenage Industrial fan, and in the Foxtrot Echo Lima Tango tribute to Felt he writes about the first records Lawrence made, smartly noting: “To me they were the chords of the future. Obsessional pop had arrived.” I don‟t know how much Tim and Laetitia knew about or listened to French disco sounds back in the early „90s. Over time the picture became clearer about French disco music, with the increased interest in
cosmic disco sounds and so on. With the wonderful group Voyage, for example, via its members Marc Chantereau, Sauveur Mallia, Pierre-Alain Dahan and producer Roger Tokarz, there are all sorts of fascinating links to the French library recordings tradition (Tele Music, Chappell‟s Dance & Mood Music series, and so on) which generated some phenomenal and functional disco infused sounds (Arpadys, Spatial & Co. etc.). There are links too back to The Peppers‟ awesome 1974 hit Pepper Box, an early electronic recording which started as an ad. then crossed over on to the Northern Soul scene and then rebounded back into the singles chart.
The Sea and Cake, Stereolab and many others often would be mentioned in connection with the influence or spectre of Krautrock as the „90s progressed. I am of an age where I first came across Can and Kraftwerk via the hits I Want More and Autobahn. I still maintain more affection for the Can of the Flow Motion-era than for some of the more revered Can titles. I like the fact that I Want More is forever associated in my mind with other German disco hits of the time, like Silver Convention‟s Fly Robin Fly and Donna Summer‟s Love to Love You Baby. There is something too in the content of The Fawn by The Sea and Cake which has the same precision, economy and restraint as I Want More and Munich disco. The Argument is a perfect example of this, as it builds gradually with hints of Latin percussion and
floating Northern Soul bedrock. song Sam sounds at his sweetest.
record of much the same time, Money Mark‟s Mo‟Wax outing, Mark‟s Keyboard Repair. There was considerable overlap between the Mo‟Wax sphere of activity and interests and what was happening in the Chicago underground. I am sure a lot of The Sea and Cake‟s fan base were also big supporters of labels like Mo‟Wax and Warp. More specifically Tortoise featured as part of the broad sweep that was Headz 2 on Mo‟Wax, contributing The Source of Uncertainty.
The Sea and Cake at their subtlest and most concise on, say, The Argument or The Ravine, make me think of Curtis Mayfield covering We‟ve Only Just Begun and his own introductory words about how some folks might think those particular lyrics are not appropriate for what might be considered underground, but Curtis counters that underground is whatever your mood or your feelings might be at the time as long as it‟s true, and he rightly highlights the inspirational nature of the song. The song itself is an easy listening standard, closely associated with The Carpenters, just as beautifully recorded by Paul Williams, one of the composers. The Sea and Cake very appealingly have had an air of easy listening about them, suggestive of say the glorious Oh Lori by Alessi from 1977. And that whole inventive middle-of-the-road thing has been so close to my heart for so long. It‟s all Vic Godard‟s fault of course. But there was also the quiet revolution kicked off by Young Marble Giants, followed through with Weekend and The Gist, the fascination with testcard and incidental music, the juxtaposition or blend of Eno ambience with easy listening elegance (Gallagher & Lyle‟s hits). And that particular strand of activity seems to be a part of what The Sea and Cake were doing on The Fawn. This is something they seemed to share with another classic
And the extended Tortoise organisation bought into the whole remix fad that was rife at the time. Indeed some of the more appealing aspects of Tortoise‟s work remain the remixes, and the reworkings of In Sarah, Mencken, Christ, And Beethoven There Were Women And Men by Derrick Carter are particularly wonderful, making an explicit link to the Chicago house music tradition and on a personal level reminding me how I first really heard house music on the London pirate stations, like LWR and when Steve Jackson would broadcast the house music chart direct from Chicago, on a tinny transistor with interference from other stations. Pretty early on, Tortoise put out the remix project Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters in a really beautifully presented edition. I can remember buying mine as an import in the Covent Garden Rough Trade shop, wincing rather at the price. The highlight of this set is Jim O‟Rourke‟s transmogrification of the Tortoise sound, Initial Gesture Protraction, the fifteen minute reinvention of (I think) His Second Story Island from the debut Tortoise LP. I say I think because really O‟Rourke drags all sorts of things into the mix, sometimes only suggestively so, such as an echo of the melody from The Sea and Cake‟s Earth Star, some dub, a bit of hiphop, a snatch of Minnie Riperton‟s Loving You, and so on: a journey into sound, as they used to say.
The Sea and Cake were also interested in the possibilities of remix activities. After The Fawn came out they released an EP, Two Gentlemen, which featured three remixes by Chicago luminaries. There were also two new songs which wandered into beautifully melodic European electronic areas, suggestive of To Rococo Rot or label mates Microstoria. Of the remixes, Bundy K. Brown‟s has a strong hip-hop feel while Casey Rice‟s is very much house influenced. The real surprise is Jim O‟Rourke‟s reinvention of Do Now Fairly Well, from The Fawn. Jim plays it surprisingly straight, resisting the urge to be showy, choosing not to add dramatic beats and bleeps. More importantly, more radically, he brought out the gorgeous melody even more. And I do wonder if this particular mix was a factor in Jim being invited to produce and arrange Sam Prekop‟s debut solo LP which was released in 1999. At pretty much the same time that the Sam Prekop LP came out Jim‟s own solo LP Eureka was released by Drag City. They make a pretty perfect pairing. Eureka in its own way was the more shocking: the enfant terrible of the experimental rock scene makes a ravishing, sumptuous soft rock classic. Now the element of surprise is long gone, and the LP amusingly seems like a cynical and very successful attempt at becoming part of „the former revolutionary‟s maudlin middle-age canon‟, you know alongside Dennis Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, Michael Nesmith, John Fahey, John Cale‟s Paris 1919 etc. So much great music, unquestionably, and yet it‟s tempting to kick against such exquisitely refined taste. That‟s the only dilemma I have with Eureka. A nice problem to have! And yet with the Sam Prekop LP there are no such issues. It is by proxy a Sea and Cake LP, and it is in many ways the great Sea and Cake record. Sam is joined by colleagues Archer Prewitt on guitar and John McEntire appears briefly. Chicago
underground alumni Josh Abrams, Chad Taylor, Rob Mazurek and Julie Pomerleau also feature prominently or occasionally. It is a record of incredible invention and beauty, and I would put it right up there as one of the greatest records ever made. Every time I sit down and listen to it, immerse myself in it, I seem to find something new to focus on. It really is that special. It is hard to resist identifying ingredients when playing this Sam Prekop LP, but it really could not be anyone other than Sam making the music. And having the best recipe in the world, the finest ingredients, does not mean the most delicious dish will be prepared. While the Chicago underground crowd has never been bashful about its influences, this can get to be a distraction, and such openness and enthusiasm can play right into the hands of the cynics who cavil about curators. But an enquiring mind and a thirst for new thrills can be a boon.
In the booklet accompanying the 1993 Rough Trade reissue of The Raincoats‟ Moving, Vicky Aspinall writes: “More than ever Moving was the result of a myriad of influences and styles and the formula, or lack of one, was stretched to breaking point on this album. Trying to contain influences as diverse as Chic, African music, Abdullah Ibrahim, funk, Cajun music and the ever present reggae along with the continuum of guitar-based post-punk was a difficult act to pull off, and in the
end, pulled us apart.” Vicky is in these notes very aware of the irony that the resurgence of interest in The Raincoats came about through the musically conservative Nirvana, Riot Grrrl groups etc. There is a danger in reading too much into what musical flavours can be picked out when listening to a record years later. The influences on that first Sam Prekop LP could be as simple as Nick Drake and The Beatles‟ ballads. This, the late „90s, was still a time when people listened more to less, unlike now where we find it hard not to skip from one thing to another. But there is, undeniably, a strong Brazilian influence at work on Sam‟s solo set. And once again with Sam and The Sea and Cake there is an unnerving sense of walking in one another‟s footsteps. I think that by 1999 the thrill of investigating Brazilian musical forms was for me one of the most intoxicating distractions, though looking back I realise this was at a painfully slow rate of progress, but then that really was part of the fun of it. I can vaguely recall Sam talking about listening to the Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa record Domingo when making his first solo LP which makes sense. But what had I been listening to which fitted in so perfectly with Sam‟s solo flight? I think at that time much of my interest in Brazilian music was stimulated by people like Gilles Peterson and Patrick Forge playing tracks on their radio shows, and I tended to seek out records which were appearing on labels loosely associated with what had been the London jazz-dance scene: Mr Bongo put out a couple of great Marcos Valle collections, Soul Jazz put out the Batucada Capoeira compilation, and Joe Davis‟ Far Out label put out a fascinating collection of early „70s material from the Quartin label. This Quartin collection is particularly important because it was a classic
example of buying something on a fairly random basis primarily because it ticked a few of the right boxes. And in some ways the CD didn‟t give too much away: it featured several tracks by the jazz saxophonist Victor Assis Brazil, some by the group Piri, and a few by the singer José Mauro. There was one track by Piri that I particularly loved at the time, Reza Brava, a track where the flute, harmonies, percussion and acoustic guitar all seemed to soar and swoop like butterflies among exotic flora. But it would another 10 years or so before I heard more by or learnt more about any of the Quartin artists, and when I did finally catch up with José Mauro‟s Obnoxious LP, tragically the only album he made and one that is gloriously lush and haunted, it was with a shiver of recognition and grateful thanks to Far Out Recordings.
Another set of Brazilian recordings that had a massive impact on me as the 1990s drew to a close was the Mr Bongo release of The Essential Joyce 1970 – 1996. The tracks featured from her 1980 LP Feminina particularly moved me, even obsessed me with their beauty. And it seemed stunningly apt that Tortoise should cover my very special favourite of these songs, Aldeia de Ogum, for a John Peel session in March 1998. The Tortoise version was an instrumental one, with a heavy fusion feel,
but the idea was just so perfect and I almost felt as if I‟d imagined the whole thing in a late night dream. And that‟s again the rub: the idea of something as opposed to the easy accessible familiarity.
In 1999, the same year Sam Prekop solo set came out, Far Out Recordings issued a new set by Joyce, Hard Bossa, which at the time I described as: “So hauntingly refreshingly beautiful. The sound of Hard Bossa is very acoustic, very pared down, in the vein of her mythical 1980 set, Feminina, and quite certainly deliberately so. Nearly 20 years on, though, her voice seems ever so slightly richer and deeper, so the effect on one's senses is more marked. It's a simple concept, simple execution, and works wonders. Acoustic guitars, flutes, light samba, bossa, whatever, rhythms; and a strange pervasive sadness in the songs. I love it!” The same article for Tangents has the lines: “It is horribly ironic when you think how great the music was that Joyce was creating in the early '80s, and there we were oblivious to it all but beginning to nod head appreciatively to Weekend, A Certain Ratio and the Pale Fountains who were making great pop by incorporating Latin rhythms more and more.” I suspect the Feminina-era songs of Joyce were a massive influence on Sam Prekop‟s
debut. Joyce‟s brilliance can be sensed in the melodic structure and looseness of the songs. There could be elements of Tom Zé in there, too. The more abstract moments suggest that may be the case. And the David Byrne-compiled Tom Zé compilation on Luaka Bop was phenomenally important and inspirational. Again there was a Tortoise connection, as in 1999 they seem to have provided support for Tom Zé when he was on tour. There are many sides different sides to Tom Zé‟s work, but something as gorgeous as So (Solidao) from the Estudando o Samba LP would fit perfectly onto Sam‟s solo set. It‟s not just me that thinks this solo excursion by Sam is one of the best records ever. Goldie, interestingly enough, is a massive champion of this LP. He‟s said that it was given to him by his friend Damon Way (the DC Shoes guy?) while snowboarding in Alaska, and I‟ve seen Goldie put it up there with Kind of Blue. It really is a stunning record, one that sustains a special mood, and a lot of credit has to go to Jim O‟Rourke for the restraint and lightness of touch he showed in his production and arrangements. The cover is a painting by Sam, quite simple and sweet, but it captures the feel of the record perfectly, and seems to portray the exact imaginary location the LP transports you to, somewhere remote and coastal and balmy and quiet, where you can have a thousand dreams of nothing to do, where someone‟s old cassette recorder plays a Bill Evans record frequently, and all the unspoilt beauty is there to be savoured, local rhythms are in the air, half-recognised folk melodies linger, and at night there‟s a beach bonfire and Bonfa flickering, lost in love, private dancing, the sun sinking, and shadows that are falling are really angels calling. “The orchestra is dreaming,” sings Sam Prekop on The Company, one of the highlights of his solo debut. Oui, the next LP
by The Sea and Cake, released well into 2000, was their orchestral colouration classic, with Brian Wilson‟s friend Paul Mertens in charge of the string and horn arrangements. Again, eerily, The Sea and Cake seemed to capture the spirit of the age, when there was a resurgence of interest in the work of arrangers like Charles Stepney and David Axelrod. The records Charles Stepney made with Terry Callier were of particular significance, especially What Colour is Love. And oh so perfectly, that year, Sam Prekop and Terry Callier shared a bill as part of the Empty Bottle Jazz and Improvised Music and Noise Pop Festival in Chicago. What a way to start the new millennium. And, yes, The Millennium, Free Design and the wider sunshine pop phenomenon were part of the fascination with orchestral works too, particularly where the music managed to pack a soulful punch cloaked in the gorgeous harmonies and soaring strings. Sam Prekop has said that two records which were big influences when making Oui were the Milton Nascimento/ Lô Borges Clube de Esquina LP and Lô‟s own record with that immortal cover photo of the battered Adidas high-tops. That makes perfect sense. I can hear traces of that. But at this point in time it sounds too tasteful to dwell on. What else can I hear? The MJQ, Bill Evans and Jim Hall, Gary McFarland and Gabor Szabo, Steve Reich, a certain Tim-bre (Buckley and Hardin) perhaps at times in there? But that‟s still seems too refined. So something more rarified? Well there are suggestions of the drive underpinning the phenomenal Giorgio Moroder soundtrack, Foxes (featuring Janis Ian‟s Fly Too High, Donna Summer‟s On The Radio, and so on!). And there is a massive temptation to refer to, say, the unlikely loveliness of Andy Fairweather Low‟s Wide Eyed and Legless. Or perhaps the Style Council? There are certainly moments when Oui makes me
think of not so much the acoustic or jazzy Style Council interludes, but the more abstruse soul oeuvre, such as It Didn‟t Matter, Waiting, Wanted, Heaven‟s Above, from the defining logic-defying Jerusalem film era, very much inspired by Cameo and Salvador Dali. Even at their most intricate and delicate, when creating celestial elegance, a little like the Penguin Café Orchestra, The Sea and Cake still have substance. There is no whimsy, no flimsiness. The group even at its most reflective has a vigour and muscularity, a tough musicality. The bottom end is always busy, there is nearly always a jazz swing or rumbling rambling reggae thing; a disco-id, precise propulsion at work in a non-fussy pro-Forsey way; a soul groove going on. It‟s easy enough to credit The Sea and Cake for looking back to, say, Shuggie Otis for inspiration and information, but what about looking up and looking around them?
If the theory about The Sea and Cake unnervingly making similar musical journeys throughout their sublime sequence is to hold water then by the turn of the millennium they would be taking directions from developments in R&B and neo-soul. And, yeah, seemingly on Seemingly that is the case, with Sam‟s falsetto and the metronomic clicks working together perfectly. It‟s possible to imagine one of the new breed making this track, particularly D‟Angelo or Maxwell who were
bold enough to use space and light in their songs with some acoustic instrumentation and subtly inventive, non-intrusive beats. Is it fanciful to imagine any crossover between The Sea and Cake and R&B? Well, no, not if you play Oui next to Maxwell‟s Embrya or Now. They fit together just perfectly. And around that time Sam sang sweetly on Last Night, a track on the Prefuse 73 LP Vocal Studies and Uprock Narratives, where the heroic Scott Herren set out his vision for abstract electronica and hip-hop collages, or glitch-hop perhaps. I really like Scott‟s work, and his desperately driven nature, but I understand the arguments about how his frequently, frustratingly, fragmented approach reveals a certain cowardice, an abnegation, a dereliction of duty, a refusal to complete. But he is very smart at what he does, and it really is not an either/or situation. There are, after all, more than enough fully realised R&B and hip-hop productions around to enjoy alongside the work of, say, Prefuse 73, Daedelus, Dabrye, Tommy Guerrero, Carlos Niño and AmmonContact, the Plug Research label and so on. I admire Scott Herren‟s workaholic ethos, which reminds me of Georgia Anne Muldrow‟s way of recording relentlessly, with different projects, different personas, different names. I really would not even begin to pretend I have anywhere near an understanding of all the work Scott has produced. I do love the way that as Savath & Savalas he developed his sound from Tortoise-like instrumentals into a gorgeous loping Latin affair (sung in Catalan by Eva Puyuelo Muns) underlain with crackling electronica in a very Sam Prekop way, with something approaching Sea and Cake pop perfection. And his Prefuse 73 project, when it has registered with me, seems perpetually
fascinating. The Only She Chapters is a particularly engrossing work, which has gradually revealed itself to be a work of astonishing beauty and boldness, strange and disorientating and perhaps as frustrating as ever, but incredibly lovely. There is a poignant aspect to the record too, as it features what was one of the last performances by Trish Keenan, or perhaps it is a hint of the performance Trish contributed hidden under layers of gauze and cobwebs and odd echoes.
In the early years of the new millennium it seemed perfectly natural to be listening to, talking about, writing about the likes of Broadcast, Prefuse 73, The Sea and Cake, Murcof, Colleen, Boards of Canada, Kelis, Jill Scott, The Roots, Cannibal Ox, Andrea Parker. Without any one specific thing happening there could be a whirl of different diverting activities. Vic Godard, once the enemy of modern music, was revealed as a passionate hip-hop fan, even incorporating electronic beats on his woefully underrated Sansend LP. But, was there much cross-pollination going on? Were there dialogues taking place? Well, Common did invite Laetitia Sadier to contribute backing vocals on his track New Wave, from the Electric Circus LP of 2002. And Derrick Carter had a track called New Wave Punk Out on his Squaredancing in a Roundhouse LP of 2002.
Common‟s Electric Circus is one hell of a strange record. It is without doubt one of the great contrarian, eccentric statements made by a successful hip-hop artist. And, wonderfully, members of Stereolab are there pictured on the cover as part of the Sgt Pepper‟s pastiche. That cover and the record itself perfectly places Stereolab alongside the likes of The Roots, Neptunes, J. Dila, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Bilal, Mary J. Blige and Cee-Lo. The chemistry between Common and Erykah Badu, and the strange territories they explore together artistically on this record, would later be claimed as their own by Georgia Anne Muldrow and Declaime. Common and Erykah‟s tribute to Jimi Hendrix, Jimi Was A Rock Star, really is astonishing, with Dilla on the moog. There does seem to be a real Stereolab thing going on within that track, and on others like the incredible Aquarius. So, was there two-way traffic going on? Did Stereolab return the favour?
The Sea and Cake‟s One Bedroom LP, released at the start of 2003, seems to capture something of the time, the pockets of interesting activity blurring. There is a suite of three songs (Hotel Tell/Le Baron/Shoulder Length) which draws heavily on electronica/beats rather than jazz/rhythms from around the world. Those three songs are just incredible together. The Sea and Cake carefully programmed their LPs so they would flow, and it shows through on this sequence.
I like to think something madly inventive like D‟Angelo‟s Voodoo might have been an influence on these songs. There‟s a great review on/article about the making of Voodoo by one its guiding lights ?uestlove from The Roots where he talks about the search for the album‟s „electric relaxation‟ heart. „Electric relaxation‟ is a good phrase for The Sea and Cake. The rest of the One Bedroom LP strongly suggests the group may have been looking back to records like The Cure‟s Seventeen Seconds and New Order‟s Movement for inspiration, taking those as ingredients for finding a new direction for the future or rather a fresh variant on „the formula‟. This is something Junior Boys would also do so well on Last Exit and Studio would do gloriously too. My personal favourite track on One Bedroom is Try Nothing which is like an electro-lullabye with hints of It‟s All Over Now, Baby Blue, and it suggests the success José González would have on Peacefrog a little later. One Bedroom would be followed in a few months or so by Glass, an EP featuring three new songs and four re-workings. Just out of curiosity I looked on the internet for reviews of this EP, and found a quite surprisingly spiteful one by Amanda Petrusich for Pitchfork. Her description of the record curiously sums up perfectly the impression I‟d developed remotely of her own organisation: “There's something uncomfortably sterile about The Sea and Cake's new, seven-song Glass EP that precludes it from functioning emotionally, and music that operates exclusively on an intellectual level seems counterintuitive. Synthesized and aggressively antiseptic, this stuff just makes me nervous.” I like Glass a lot: to hell with the likes of Petrusich. It was the last thing The Sea and Cake produced as a unit for a few years or so, and it is the last record in this priceless sequence. It‟s good fun, too. It kicks off with two versions of a new song, To The
Author, and it‟s the stripped-down second mix that really grabs the attention, coming across surprisingly playful and slinky in a dirty electro ballad way not far removed from what, say, Annie or Robyn might do. The second new song, Traditional Wax Coin, is a fractured jazz instrumental with a glorious piano melody and broken beat accompaniment, and as a whole would not have been out of place on the Innerzone Orchestra LP. In contrast, the final new song, An Echo In, is a portent of the rather more robust, solid soul static sound The Sea and Cake would return with. Broadcast provide a radical reinvention of Interiors, from One Bedroom, transforming the ballad into a Silver Apples style freakout. Broadcast were at this point just about to become the coolest entity on the planet when Haha Sound was released. The Stereolab mix of Hotel Tell is a little more staid, but Carl Craig takes the same song and really comes up with something magical, just when it seems as if the mix would be pleasant enough it subtly changes emphasis and becomes almost a stomping glitter/northern soul number which could cheerfully go on for ever. This remix must have been done around the time of the remarkable Detroit Experiment record Carl was involved with. Glass also features the video for the group‟s unlikely and very lovely cover of Sound and Vision which closed the door to proceedings on One Bedroom. The film was made by Richard McGuire, who is a successful illustrator and film maker now but once was a member of Liquid Liquid, so there is a sort of appropriateness about him working with/for The Sea and Cake. Apart from the links which may be there creatively between what, say, The Sea and Cake and Tortoise were doing in the mid„90s and what Liquid Liquid and the 99 Records coterie were doing post-punk, there is a specific association in my mind between listening to The Sea and Cake‟s
CDs and playing the Liquid Liquid compilation Mo‟Wax put out in 1997 or so. They were such big records for me. The video for Sound and Vision also features in a documentary on the Chicago music scene as part of the This Is Our Music series, made by Andres Lokko and comrades and, I think, shown on Swedish national TV and MTV Nordic, and the series may even have been broadcast on other digital networks. There are some lovely pieces of film in the series, particularly a Tenniscoats one which was a revelation. There was also a deeply disturbing and incredibly moving piece of film on Dan Treacy and the Television Personalities, a brave production for a fan of the TVPs to put together and put out. It just left me drained when I first saw it. And that would have been around 2004, I guess.
The Chicago episode features interviews with Sam Prekop and Bettina Richards, who runs the Thrill Jockey label. This was the first I had actually come across any real information about Bettina, and I haven‟t seen a lot more since in the UK media, which is really odd. It seems strange that there could be any overviews of the independent music sector since punk that would not include Thrill Jockey, but there
you go. Thrill Jockey doesn‟t fit any neat narrative, and I suspect there may not be too many salacious stories and eccentric behaviours to document. But there is no doubt that Bettina‟s enduring label has released some incredible music over the past 20 years.
two groups. But I guess Drag City or Kranky or someone else could feasibly have got there first. I have I confess lost track of what Bettina and Thrill Jockey have been releasing, though occasional things have registered, like Microstoria, Mouse on Mars, and the remarkable OOIOO.
There are some very good examples of the way The Sea and Cake stuck to their formula, in a manner that Lawrence and Felt adhered to theirs. The Sea and Cake have had a tradition of ten tracks to an LP, I think only deviating from that once (in a Go-Betweens „double-L‟ way). The Sea and Cake have maintained the same lineup since it settled as Sam, Archer, Eric and John. The Sea and Cake have loyally released records on Thrill Jockey. That‟s incredible, really.
I willingly admit that the records I immediately associate with Thrill Jockey are the great Chicago underground sounds. Beyond Tortoise and The Sea and Cake I am thinking of three specific records. One is the Directions in Music LP from 1996 by the Directions trio of Bundy K. Brown, Doug Scharin and James Warden. This is one of those records that I return to time and time again. It still has the power to surprise me. I was certainly surprised when I first heard it, as I realised the title was a reference to Miles Davis‟ Filles de Kilimanjaro, which had the subtitle of Directions In Music By Miles Davis. This 1968 LP seemed to be, with In A Silent Way, the Miles LP of choice among the Chicago underground singers and players, which delighted me. But the title was a red herring.
I suspect The Sea and Cake‟s stability has a lot to do with its members‟ other outlets. Sam, Archer and Eric are all visual artists. Sam and Archer have gone off to make their own records. John plays with Tortoise, has his studio Soma, and his production work. Every now and then they reconvene to record and tour. It‟s an effective template, and a good model to follow.
Bettina‟s Thrill Jockey is a strange label. It benefited enormously from being based in Chicago and releasing records by Tortoise and The Sea and Cake. It was in the right place at the right time to capture these
Musically there was little jazz-like about the Bundy K. Brown and co. project, except perhaps in the „improvisational‟ sense of three guys in the studio developing the songs and exploring ideas as they go along. The line-up is the traditional guitar, bass and drums of the power trio. There are no vocals at all. There is very little information about the record itself, no song titles, which adds to its appeal. Stylistically the CD seems to belong to a completely different tradition than the Velvets/jazz background I share with The Sea and Cake. It seems much more rooted in the slow-motion, experimental end of hardcore that most of Tortoise seemed to have come from, an area I had no interest in or knowledge of, beyond some songs by Slint or Codeine.
Bundy K. Brown had been a member of Tortoise early on, playing on the stunning debut, and ironically his place would later be filled indirectly by David Pajo, once of Slint. So there is a good reason why the Directions in Music sound seems related to Tortoise. In the tracks there are similar suggestions of the Angelo Badalamenti, Ry Cooder, Ennio Morricone etc. mood manipulations and the dynamics that make Slint‟s Spiderland so appealing. But there seem to be folk music elements too, something approaching the John Fahey or Robbie Basho meditations but also something a little more vigorous like Richard Thompson might have come up with on one of his records with Linda. Beyond Tortoise the whole instrumental thing soon got very tedious with the „slow motion speeded-up sound‟ and the whole quiet-loud-lull-boom brigade droning on and on. The Directions in Sound record is one of the few wonderful exceptions from the mid-„90s, alongside A Stable Reference by Labradford and Füxa‟s Very Well Organised. Another great exception is the Rome CD that came out on Thrill Jockey in 1996. Another instrumental trio, their take on noise drifts and drone seemed to have much more in common with the post-punk pioneers like 23 Skidoo, This Heat, Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle than the Macro Dub Infesticons they were lumped in with by the terminally dull Kevin Martin. Part of the enduring appeal of Rome is the collective anonymity, though John McEntire and Designer (Casey Rice) feature on the version of Radiolucence. The nigh on 15-minutes worth of Deepest Laws is one of the high points of „90s experimentation and a mad piece of electronic meditation music. The sounds suggested by the title Directions in Music might more readily apply to The Unstable Molecule by Isotope 217°, which is the best thing created in the „90s by the
Chicago underground scene beyond The Sea and Cake. It features a core ensemble of Dan Bitney, John Herndon, Rob Mazurek, Jeff Parker, Matt Lux, Sara P. Smith, and was recorded by Bundy K. Brown and Casey Rice in John McEntire‟s studio. And it‟s easy enough to make a case for this wonderful record being shaped by the music Miles Davis made in the late‟60s and indeed the music his colleagues went on to make with Mwandishi, Headhunters, Weather Report, Lifetime, Return to Forever, for example. I think part of the lasting appeal of The Unstable Molecule is the way it came along at just the right time, when I was exploring the sounds of jazz as a reality rather than just an idea, thanks to an avalanche of reissues from Blue Note, Impulse! etc. And so many people making great music at the time were citing Miles as an influence, from the Moving Shadow label to Mo‟Wax, from The Sea and Cake to Red Snapper to Photek to Roni Size. There are certainly similarities between The Unstable Molecule and the work Chris Bowden was involved in at the time, the superb Time Capsule LP for Soul Jazz, his performances with 4hero, and so on.
I„m not sure what jazz purists made of The Unstable Molecule, but I think the music benefited from having a mix of players from a punk background and the jazz tradition. This was slightly similar to what Simon Booth did in Weekend, drafting in the likes of Larry Stabbins, Keith Tippett, Harry Beckett, which worked so well. My
favourite moment on the LP is La Jetée, a beautiful ballad, with discreet brass and some lovely understated guitar work from, presumably, Jeff Parker. The title itself is presumably a tip of the hat to the 1962 Chris Marker film, which reinforces suggestions the Chicago underground was populated by polymaths. The track reappeared in a reinvented form the following year on the Tortoise LP, T.N.T., a record which featured pretty much the entire ensemble that made The Unstable Molecule. T.N.T. is one of those records that has grown in stature over the years, and has continued to reveal subtle new delights which is a little surprising as it seemed too comfortable at the time it came out. I think, however, that had a lot to do with the „Joy Division-syndrome‟ of overexposure and being oft-copied by idiots, all of which Tortoise had to endure. T.N.T. is a fantastic record. The ease with which it flows, the way it fits together as a whole suite of compositions is incredibly impressive. Oh, again, it‟s fun to spot the ingredients (Erik Satie, MJQ, exotica (eden ahbez, the composer of Nature Boy, became a master of this form), Morricone, Krzystof Komeda, Brazilian fusion, light disco, Arthur Russell, modern classical, ambient dub, electronic listening music, etc.), and appreciate specifically the increased use of marimbas and vibes, the delicacy of (presumably) Jeff Parker‟s guitar, the subtle integration of electronic beats, and so on. But beyond that there is a restful nature to T.N.T. that comes from its confidence and elegance, and that‟s a lot to do with its perennial power. I know I like T.N.T. more now than I did at the time. Maybe that has something to do with the way my tastes have developed over the years. I can, for example, listen now to lots of solo piano works that might once have been too refined for my needs.
I have increasingly become fascinated by the output of the ECM label, and struck by the fact that some of its greatest releases were recorded during the post-punk era and are just as, if not more, adventurous. I can appreciate the stillness present in many of the great ECM recordings, the bold use of space, the many different permutations the musicians appeared in, the whole aesthetic sensibility. ECM really is quite a remarkable label. I sense or rather hope that Tortoise and the Chicago underground singers and players were much more familiar with the ECM catalogue than I was in the latter half of the 1990s. But, what the hell, part of the fun in life is catching up with things you miss along the way, as we retrace our steps and look at things in a new way. After T.N.T. I lost track of what was going on in the Chicago underground and the records that were released, with the exception of The Sea and Cake naturally. Every now and then I would catch sight of John McEntire‟s name in some unexpected context other than TS&C (e.g. the fantastic Fiery Furnaces‟ Widow City on Thrill Jockey and the Red Krayola‟s superb Introduction on Drag City), and feel a twinge of guilt about not keeping up. These things happen. I may have demonstrated here a certain preoccupation with Sam Prekop (a Prekopupation, perhaps) but I have a lot of time for John McEntire; his dedication to The Sea and Cake, despite all the distractions and other assignments, is very, very important. The thought he must have given to his drum contributions is significant, the subtle use of jazz and irregular rhythmic colouration at the heart of the music is such an important part of the formula.
Island Disc is A Tabua de Esmeralda by Jorge Ben). There is better use of space and textures than on any Stereolab record. And, occasionally, listening to Silencio, I have found myself thinking of Blondie‟s ballads, such as Fade Away and Radiate, which is a very good thing.
Most recently I came across John McEntire‟s name among the credits on Silencio, the Laetitia Sadier record released in the summer of 2012 by Drag City. It‟s a record I‟ve only recently caught up with. I think it‟s one of the important works of our time. It seems like one of the rare recordings made for these times. The songs have a very real emotional resonance. The words are impressive: occasionally strikingly topical, but there is a real sense of there being a higher ground, that is sacred aspirations as well as the everyday truths. Musically there are not too many shocks, but it does get fiercely, delightfully, tropically funky from time to time (Laetitia has mentioned more than once her Desert
John McEntire seems to have been responsible for some of the engineering at Soma. Sam Prekop was involved with „electronics‟ on Auscultation, and I like the way Sam seems to have emerged as the enthusiast tinkering and experimenting with synth compositions. There is, yes, something of the glee and ache of The Sea and Cake present on Silencio, but listening to it I have found myself thinking rather more about the elegantly eccentric composers Bertrand Burgalat and Philippe Katerine. And Laetitia is directly responsible for me returning to works of theirs which I‟d overdosed on some time ago. It has been incredibly rewarding discovering these recordings all over anew. I note too that there are recent releases by Bertrand and Philippe which I have missed out on. And round and round we go ...