ould it be that indie rock is experiencing a turnover? The past few months have seen the demise of flagship groups like Shiner, Beulah, and the Dismemberment Plan, and it doesn’t look good for Jets To Brazil or Death Cab For Cutie, who both lost key drummers and were beset with cancelled tours and side projects. Stereolab, although by means far beyond their control, will surely pack it in, as well. In addition to this, an ever growing cache of the genre’s mid-90s forbearers are growing older by the day. Calexico, Modest Mouse Belle & Sebastian, Built To Spill, Les Savy Fav, and plenty of others have been around for a good six to ten years, which is often a lifetime in the underground. Hot Hot Heat, Interpol, the Walkmen, Liars and scores of others appear ready to carry the torch into our heretofore stylistically arrested new millennium. Far be it from me to theorize beyond my understanding, but the booming din of 2002 was undeniable: this is a new generation of indie listeners and artists alike. Which brings us to the Sea and Cake. In their ninth year comes their sixth album, One Bedroom. The record is one that, in the end, calls into question the very existence of the band.
When they burst upon the scene in 1994 with a self-titled debut, their pedigree was as alluring as their breezy music. Throughout the course of three more great records that managed to maintain interest after an early peak (1995’s under-appreciated gem, Nassau), the group never failed to grow musically; nearly every song was worth its weight in offhand melodic gold. But by the time they hit upon the less-than-subtle elevator influence of 2000’s still-worthy Oui, it didn’t take long to wonder how many times the group could drive down the same road without buying a new car. Plenty of listens into One Bedroom, I’m still wondering if it’s one of the most boring albums of this short year or just a lackluster jaunt from a spent outfit. Either way you cut it, the record hardly pleads for the Sea and Cake’s continuation.
Whereas the smooth and sophisticated undercurrents of 1997’s The Fawn bubbled and cooled with sublime ease, the drum machines and synth tones that often grace One Bedroom hinder the songs, if nothing else, exacerbating their already-too-prevalent listlessness. Eschewing the usually airy production of previous efforts in favor of a compressed, enervated smoothness, the group leaves no room for the willowy interplay that they are obviously capable of, with little to show for their restraint but a complacent, inoffensive set of songs that belie the talent and vision of their creators.
As always, rhythmic polymath John McEntire’s drums form the foundation of the songs, but here more than ever, they are too-often lost amongst the quietly deafening keyboards and pulsating electronic embellishment. However, all criticisms aside, the album is far from a lost cause, and frequently scores on a melodic level. Singer/guitarist Sam Prekop’s vocals are as distinctive (and mixed higher) than ever, and single-handedly save One Bedroom from a sub-6 rating. The blue-eyed tenacity that he brings to “Hotel Tell” and the spryly jittery “Shoulder Length” allows the songs to stand amongst the very best the group has turned out since Nassau (whose slight Caribbean vibe is beautifully imbued into “Try Nothing”). A cover of David Bowie’s peerless “Sound + Vision” closes out the record with a concurrent glimpse of what the album could have been and how it failed. For the first time, the electronics are used to surround the song in a hazy wash of color rather than augment its already ineffectual playing. The music is finally propelled into the farther reaches of jazz-pop ambiance after thirty-five minutes of flooding its motor on the ground --an all-too short flight indeed.
I would hardly be so rash as to call for the termination of the Sea and Cake’s career, but I still find it within my rights to ask what purpose it serves. Their back catalogue surely ensures a durable legacy, but there’s always honor in a dignified bow. And although Oui would have been the preferable one, One Bedroom might just have to do. Godspeed, guys.
Reviewed by: Colin McElligatt
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01