Sam Prekop’s CDs always sport great packaging, even when the recorded material is less than compelling. One Bedroom‘s glossy cover features a crystalline shot of a misty Chicago morning, skyscrapers drenched in a heavy fog. The disc itself is colored in a perfect light-blue hue surrounded by abstract circular doodles. Feels like a cold, lazy day in Illinois, but the Sea and Cake do not provide enough energy with One Bedroom, their second full-length in five years, to melt the desolate cityscape.
The most recognizable, and ultimately frustrating, aspect of the group is Prekop’s one-dimensional mike chops. They have always been an emotive, if not EMOtional, pop band. His indecipherable airy melodies define their sound, but his vocal range is extremely limited, and every word whispers in an art-school damaged sigh. This dramatic formula repeats ten times on One Bedroom, and it’s only slighly refined. The Sea and Cake have presented the equation much more convincingly over their five previous albums.
One may ask, Who is Mr. Prekop’s earliest musical reference point? Morrissey? David Bowie? Ian Curtis? No, it’s probably Chet Baker, the original king of androgyny, who was wowing the uptown crowds long before Prince knew how to pronounce his own name. Baker controlled his smooth tenor cadence far better than Prekop, but it’s no stretch to hear the natural progression. An even bigger secret powering this group is their mastery of the seventh chord. Not in recent memory has a band existed so completely in tribute to that sweet nugget between the major and the root fifth, beloved of sensitive crooners everywhere from Neil Young and Thom Yorke to Bacharach and Tom Jones. Nothing better expresses the conflicted feelings of angst and sentimentality that define the lives of the youth.
Each song is based around a short, agreeable, but ultimately spineless, guitar/drum machine riff, and though they bear attractive melodies, every track ends indistinguishable from the next. Problems begin with the three-minute instrumental intro to “Four Corners” — the melody is decorative but tedious. Frilly and overproduced is pretty much the story for the entire album. “Left Side Clouded” has a great dramatic chord shift from pleasant to suspenseful, but the vocals and six-string strums still feel far too easy. The best part of this track is the distorted bass solo, serving as a distant reminder that two of these guys are in a better band called Tortoise.
The title track is another round, bubbly pop candy complimented by a complex bridge and breezy ruminations including “Someone got up early/ I don’t know why.” Slight bossa nova brushes flavor “Try Nothing” like Yo La Tengo’s “Center of Gravity.” So the Sea and Cake can sound inspired, but with an edgier side to balance the dry pleasant vibes, they might be a more involving band. Disco beats bump up “Hotel Tell,” but the group sounds very tired, and the tune slides too easily through the digestive system. The Sea and Cake simply lacks the experimental spirit that makes Tortoise such a great group. Their songbook sounds more conservative than U2’s, with a cover of Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” and its fossilized synthesizers sitting a little ridiculous at the record’s end. This album might make a great five-song EP, but I find it difficult to swallow so much digital sugar in one sitting.
If you didn’t like the Sea and Cake before, you will certainly not like them now. Those who got a kick out of their other records may find this one to be another good chapter in their impressive decade-long story. The last album, Oui, was almost very good, but it still bore some of the easy-listening gloss that permeates One Bedroom. And Prekop performs a single musical drill very effectively, but he will have to branch out to save his group from the uniformity they skirt here. Though the graphic design team must be commended, this album is a thoroughly unexceptional run-through. The band manages to release one of these moderately successful exercises about every 18 months, and they certainly deserve recognition for such consistency, but does it have to sound so boring?