Right out of the gate, the Sea and Cake produced two opposite effects. For one, they immediately had their own distinct sound, one still recognizable in their work today. It infused African and Carribean sounds — among many others — into what seemed like a pretty standard guitar-bass-drums set-up and created a sound unlike anyone else’s. And yet, despite the band’s signature sound, they were also subtly hard to pin down. In just over a year, we were hit with the Sea and Cake’s first three records, and if they all follow a similar path, each album has its own strut with which it travels. Their first, eponymous album in 1994 set the path itself: Sam Prekop’s breathy, sweet vocals, the thick layers of guitar from Prekop and Archer Prewitt, the intricate rhythms of bassist Eric Claridge and drummer John McEntire.
From there, 1995 saw two albums from the band that tread this path in different ways. The Biz, released in October, was a wide-open jam, something far more stretched out than the tigher moves on The Sea and Cake. It was an interesting departure that retained all the bright pop sensibilities of the first record. Nassau, however, went another way. In fact, to hear it now, it’s hard to believe it came before The Biz (Nassau was out in January 1995) because it just feels so much more removed from its predecessor.
Not that you’re likely to hear the record and mistake it for anything other than the Sea and Cake. But while the swirl of guitars and organs on opener “Nature Boy” surely announce that this is Prekop and company, there’s something different about it. Firstly, there’s McEntire’s rolling snares, the sheer propulsion and intricacy of them. They’re up in the mix, equal with those dripping organs, with those brittle guitars. There’d be a swagger to this, if swaggers came in intricately shifting time signatures. There’s also a lean rock muscle that shows itself in the chunked-up rundowns that follow the choruses, something a bit grittier than what we heard on the first record.
But then there’s the spacious, moody atmosphere that closes the song. McEntire’s drums slow to a shuffling quiet, guitars drift off into darkness. In short, all the tight inertia of the song’s start unravels into something far trickier to pin down. Something new from the band. Something slow and methodical and downright fascinating. It also sets up many of the textures Nassau explores, yet it never telegraphs or gives anything away. “Nature Boy” is one of those perfect opener’s that hints at what’s coming, but doesn’t give away all the tricks in one go.
So you get to hear the quick ripple of those snares, the spiraling guitars, the wonder and ache of Prekop’s vocals on “Parasol,” but you’ll still be amazed by the guitar breakdown that ramps the song to life or the violin that shadows it like a benevolent spirit. The beat of “A Man Who Never Sees a Pretty Girl That He Doesn’t Love Her Anymore” will hearken back to the Afro-Carriebean influences that informed the first record, but it’s start-and-stop is more deliberate, more off-kilter, and the faint atmospherics hint more at music from Tortoise (McEntire’s other band) than the Sea and Cake or Shrimp Boat, Prekop’s earlier band.
The album is full of these kinds of moves. Things that sound at first glance like what came before, but in the details morph into something wholly different. The lean funk freak-outs of “Lamont’s Lament” break up the trademark Prekop-and-Prewitt gliding riffs. The charging pace of “The Cantina” is only fully realized with the thick gauze or organs and the on-a-dime rundowns that fill it out and keep it from being a straight-lined power-pop number. Closer “I Will Hold The Tea Bag” is the biggest outlier by a long shot. It deals in crunching, psychedelic guitar moves — from the feedback that bleats like seagulls to the moody, distorted chord phrasings that set the song up — and it uses those elements to strike out into wider, more overcast tones than anywhere else on the record. It’s a squalling post-rock explosion at the end of an album that built itself on much subtler tensions that had set up borders — a place imagined, a musical version of Nassau — that nestled themselves tightly around these perfectly meshed together parts. McEntire’s drumwork, along with Claridge’s bass, keep things together as much as it can, but the whole song (despite it’s calm-inducing title) is on the verge of chaos.
It’s also one of those closing songs that casts a new shadow back on the rest of the record. For all its beautiful tones and soothing textures, Nassau isn’t as comforting as it presents itself to be. There’s still the bright skies of the debut album, but if that album felt like a sunburst of noise, then Nassau is shrowded in a bit more worry. There may be clear skies overhead, but there’s darkness on the horizon. The parisol that lies (presumably on the ground) early in the album will be of no comfort for whatever may be coming. It’s not an album of panic, but it is an album that tears at its own restraints and eventually breaks free of them. As consistent as the Sea and Cake has been with its sound over the years, it has always been a mistake to assume they’ve stagnated, that they’re merely coasting on the uniqueness of their sound. Nassau, as a second album, addresses this problem. For all the pop immediacy of The Sea and Cake, it was still a damned intricate set of songs. Nassau takes that intricacy and ups the ante at every turn, both musically and emotionally. McEntire took over production here and perhaps it’s that move that makes the band sound so comfortable in their own skin and yet so eager to tear it off in favor of some new daring layer instead. It’s an album confident enough to convey worry without falling apart, to ache without whining, and to both tell us exactly what’s coming and surprise us at every turn. Nassau is the moodiest of all of the Sea and Cake’s records, but that’s not what makes it brilliant. What makes it a modern classic is how that moodiness doesn’t slow or weight it down.
In fact, the band sounds all the more fiery and confrontational for it. They burn through “The World is Against You” in their hushed, skittering way, and you know that — despite all that insurmountable opposition — there’s something in their sound that will keep them pushing forward. Maybe it’s the smoldering distorted guitars in the background, maybe it’s McEntire’s precise cymbal crashes, or maybe’s it Prekop eye-of-the-storm calmness while he sings. But whatever it is — and the Sea and Cake is the kind of band that works with a mysterious alchemy — the band’s second album was both tone poem and declaration. They were confident enough to bring the storm clouds on their sunny pop sound, and great enough to stave off the full-on storm. In between utter calm and furious storm is where Nassau exists, and it’s a beautiful place to be.
Runner, the band’s excellent new album, is out Sept. 18 on Thrill Jockey.