Fourteen years, several albums, and plenty of involvement in other great musical ventures later, the Sea and Cake remains one of the harder bands under the “indie” umbrella to pin down. (That they also get stuck with the clumsy “post-rock” pin is even more disconcerting, because the band is more beholden to lyrics and traditional song structures than, say, Japancakes is.) The band’s May 19 show at the Troubadour was the first of a two-night stint at the venue, where a week before I’d seen Dinosaur Jr. shred the roof off the joint. But the members of the Sea and Cake were playing anything but a rock show. I’ve always imagined the band as some kind of twenty-second-century lounge act from space, and I guess that description is as close I can get to parlaying the show the musicians put on at the Troubadour.
For one, the band members were dressed to the nines. (Interesting that a month before their label mates Trans Am showed up to play looking like they’d just come from the gym.) As typically “indie” as they might not be, it would be hard to find anyone fitting the indie visual aesthetic more than Archer Prewitt was that night, with his black suit and nerd-chic glasses.
And it’s not as if the band members don’t want to rock. It’s just that they’re so wrapped up in their consummate professionalism that they struggle to let their hair down. After they’re opening number, while they were tuning for their next song, Sam Prekop said, “We’re really great at getting the mood started with a rocking number and then killing it by taking five minutes to tune after that.” Although Prewitt and Prekop did plenty of deft interweaving guitar work throughout the night, the other two members of the band seemed locked in their own little worlds. Bassist Eric Claridge stood off to the side noodling away, looking like he’d be more comfortable manning an upright bass rather than an electric. And John McEntire, who also handles the skins for Tortoise, stared out into space while keeping things in lockstep. They are four super-talented individuals, but live it looked like they struggle to meld those distinct talents into a cohesive whole.
After starting with some older material — highlighted by an amped-up jaunt through “Jacking the Ball” — the band settled into a set culled mostly from Everybody, which was released earlier this month via Thrill Jockey), including “Crossing Line” and “Up on Crutches.” The band’s Caribbean-leaning rhythms and airy guitar lines make for pleasant enough music, but it felt pointless to be standing up watching them, for the crowd to be trying its damnedest to sway a little bit on a Saturday night.