How exactly does the comic-book artist, illustrator, and peddler of collectible novelty items make the transition to singer-songwriter? Sure, Archer Prewitt is less known for creating Sof' Boy than for his musical résumé (pre-lounge-revival legends the Coctails, guitarist for the jazzy underground group the Sea and Cake, and drummer for Edith Frost). But with three solo albums, he comes dangerously close to needing a ludicrous title, like actor-writer-director, model-actress-songwriter or...er...philosopher-chef-ninja. But any skepticism should give way to serious props. Three, Prewitt's first disc for Chicago indie Thrill Jockey, finds him treating a diverse array of light-hearted pop tunes with ambitious instrumental arrangements and achieving nifty results. His crack team of Chicago players (members of Seam, Poi Dog Pondering, Joan of Arc, and former Coctail Mark Greenberger) lends the album an assured polish.
Prewitt's previous solo efforts showed his interest in Sixties and Seventies British arty-folk troubadours such as Nick Drake, Robert Wyatt, and Fairport Convention. Three is less of a fan letter and more of a convincing blend of vintage styles. This time Prewitt's uplifting songs are worth dressing up.
Truly, it's his arrangements and sonic textures that star on Three. The songs are generously soaked with warm organ tones and daubed with female backing vocals and lush string arrangements (done with Paul Mertens, who has done orchestral charts for Brian Wilson). The downtempo "Atmosphere" is draped in strings and flutes from the pastoral jazz-hippy school. When Prewitt chooses to rock ("When I'm With You," "Second Time Trader"), he taps into the Seventies guitar-pop sound of Big Star and unsung Beatlesesque songwriter/producer Emitt Rhodes. The psychedelic pop tune "Gifts of Love" recalls the early Bee Gees with layers of vocals, dramatic strings, quasi-philosophical lyrics, and a paisley-patterned, whirling-dervish ending. Within some tunes, Prewitt goes through dazzling stylistic turns that defy categorization. At points, the quirky rocker "No Defense" sounds a bit like Split Enz or 10cc, but it finishes with a soaring big-rock tag that's unique.
With so much emphasis on style and sound, Prewitt's voice doesn't always take the spotlight. But on "Behind Your Sun," which sees him in British folk-rocker guise, he's capable of some thrilling moments. On the sparser tunes especially, the ethereal "The Race" and the chamber-pop "Another Day," Prewitt explores different singing styles naturally. Again and again, he's riffing on aspects of love and talking to a lover with convincing maturity. He isn't so world-weary that he's carted the comic books out to the garage. But often the airy Three is a toast to the comforts of being earthbound. Here's to growing up.
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