CAMERAS PANNED THE CROWDS of bereaved rockers lighting candles for poor doomed Kurt's burned-out spirit in 1994. Yet hardly anyone noticed the tiny nation of sweater-vested, singles-hoarding, post-hardcore kids mourning the passing of daintily eclectic combos Shrimp Boat and the Coctails, a year before and after. Fortunately, Shrimp Boat singer/guitarist Sam Prekop and bassist Eric Claridge (joined by ex-Coctails guitarist Archer Prewitt and Tortoise drummer John McEntire) soothed their followers' sad hearts by hastily assembling the Sea and Cake, a supergroup for people who smirk when they say that word. Since then, the combo's gently tunelike structures have filled a niche as a romantic backdrop of choice, even as their early, gangly flailing has been smoothed down into an airy, quietly arty pop.
What distinguishes the Sea and Cake from Radio K's endless hit parade of twee young people who go gaga over their parents' Dionne Warwick and Stan Getz records is Prekop's mannered voice. Foolish kiddies whose taste in soul tends toward Brian McKnight liken Prekop's mumbly croon-talk to Al Green or Marvin Gaye, but his voice actually bears little resemblance to any blue-, brown-, or four-eyed soul singer walking this green earth. Admittedly, the Sea and Cake often fail to meet the criteria for inspiring romance in our rented rooms: The lyrics are too oblique and aren't funny enough (intentionally or otherwise); the repetitive guitar and keyboard lines merely insinuate and approximate melodies; and an impersonal tepidity stands in for genuine passion. And yet 1995's The Biz is a superior lovey-dovey record, finally synthesizing those pesky Feelies and JB's influences into chiming, addictive guitar figures, while Prekop's sly, oily, and soothingly unintelligible coo shades a negative space like the pink heart that dots the i of Biz on the record label.
Too bad they don't let sappiness bleed out of their tidy little souls more often. If the first three records found the Sea and Cake merely exfoliating bad habits, 1997's The Fawn, and this year's Oui, seem like a dowager after a facial peel and surgical realignment: The original bone structure's still there, but the surface has changed. Where Fawn was like a Steely Dan record with no minor chords or lyrics about dope and jailbait, Oui is an airy confection of the bubblier elements of Brazilian music, pop-jazz fusion, and the deceptively ornate arrangements of Burt Bacharach. Yes, Oui is frothier and more tuneful than its predecessor--which is kind of like comparing cumulus clouds with cappuccino foam.
The layers of "ba-ba-ba's" decorating the opener "Afternoon Speaker" make up one of this year's sprightliest hooks, while that same song's segue into "Into the Photos" is one of the best examples of the dying art of sequencing I've heard in a long while. Prekop has pretty much transformed himself into the post-whatever-the-term-is-this-week analog to João Gilberto, which suits him well--his breathy vocals mesh perfectly with the sun-dappled acoustic guitars, tasteful horn charts, and tiny bursts of strings that pop up unexpectedly behind the vintage synth washes.
And yet Oui will probably follow Fawn's fate: hauled out a couple of times a year like a knickknack you can't quite bear to send to Goodwill, exclaimed over, and then quickly re-filed. The Sea and Cake were wise to turn inward after their self-titled debut: The record's early, troubling amalgam of Lou Reed and David Byrne atop gawky, angular funk-pop pointed only to their becoming a prettier The Scene Is Now--hardly a wise career move. But while both Prekop and Prewitt have made recent solo work that's tuneful, direct, and emotional, the obsession with craft evinced here seems like a dead end.
Like a house with mirror walls, shiny black enameled furniture, and snow-white carpet, Oui's beauty is dazzling, even inspirational. But you can't touch anything, and you aren't comfortable visiting there. At least not very often.