The Sea and Cake: Showboat Angel

as The Coctails probably felt their impending demise near during the recording of 1995’s Long Sound, quasi-spiritual jazz focused guitarist Archer Prewitt aspired to broaden his horizons to the new sounds floating in and around Chicago. Most of those sounds were being created by Tortoise percussionist and part-mixer/engineer John McEntire, who based on that group’s early experiments became the man to collaborate with in a short space of time. With the disintegration of the spasmodically fine-tuned Shrimp Boat, Thrill Jockey volunteered front man Sam Prekop to fashion a project to headline the label alongside Tortoise and peers. The Sea and Cake followed, and “Showboat Angel,” the album’s (and possibly the band’s as well) masterpiece expelled nearly every other speck of similar indie pop out of the ocean.

“Showboat Angel” is the threshold of a story in which the exposition, climax, and conclusion are left up to the listener to discover. Even near its finale the overall message is abundantly clear:
So sad such a story, inked upon the shattered wing
So sad such a story, we shouldn't even begin
Its ambiguousness is its structure, and ultimately its masterfulness in reaching out to the listener with such a stylish innocence. It begins with an echoing drum-beat so subtle you may fail to grasp its importance before the laid-back guitar riff enters the fray and injects everything else on the record with poison in their slumber (honestly, this should have been track one). Prekop initiates his vocals with his now trademark masculine-wail promptly accompanied by a rapid-paced:
We don't love
We don't care
We don't know
We don't fight
We don't care
Then comes the song’s most stunning moment when Prekop unleashes his extended “oooooooooh yeah, awww” brigade of intricately-developed harmony. Sung by almost any other individual in the same manner, a quick tap of the “next” button would be the obvious move. Prekop’s ability to go off on wordless tangents while managing the magnetic balance of his three counterparts makes this a turn-on, rather than the opposite, though.

If one thing besides Prekop’s vocals makes this song grasp perfection, it’s Prewitt’s guitar playing. Essentially, he picks through one key riff the entire time (with the brief occasional hooks and interludes to carry Prekop’s changes in tone). But, what a riff it is! I can’t tell you how many times I have personally tried to replicate it precisely; it seems every instance I attain a twin sound, the next pick-through sounds like utter garbage and leaves me worse off than when I began. It’s so fiendishly complex, in fact, that Prewitt’s bandmates wisely sit back: McEntire’s drumming and Claridge’s bass playing give the song an embracing hum, to which birds sitting on wires can finally feel a shock and smile the smile birds do when legions of worms appear after a dry spell.

That such a rag-tag squad of nearly unknown musicians could convey a sense of genre-mastery in a single song, and promptly continue to do so throughout a lengthy career is the hallmark of a truly focused and in-control band. “Showboat Angel” is so utterly flawless that it simply does not strengthen after each time I listen to it; it has the ability to alter my mood to that of uninterrupted joy.

As the song forms in my head, every time my earnest ears take in the same vision:

I am badly wounded with deep slashes on my face and torso; my blood spreads onto heated sand and vacant gliders charge into the sun and reform as moon-colored crows that caw at passing biplanes flown by people whose heads are too big for their shoulders. On other patches of sea and air, everything is gold and shimmering except the dark sky which juggles clouds like mounds of cotton. Large bodies of water sink into themselves and rise upon shores sprinkled with glassy rock shards like newborn cats lapping fresh morning milk. My body’s skin cells hold microscopic seraphs praying for my brain to keep thinking of new things and…and…to love, care, know, fight and care again for everyone but myself. I learn that always and forever someone will be tumbling down terrible mountainsides to freedom, but somehow I will escort them to safety with my makeshift flying limbs. But even if they do not appreciate my saving them, I am saved nonetheless by the momentary meeting of our swollen eyes.

Too emo for a Sea and Cake tune? Nay. The sign of a perfect song (or as close to perfection as one can get) is what feelings it evokes, and what visualizations it draws within the confines of one’s mind. I really don’t know how to explain it any further. All I can say is that this song fucking melts glaciers; I’ve never listened to a song quite so warm, so willing to give its blind love to anyone willing to listen.
I believe it so
Because you’re keeping up with all these lies
Always on me
Showboat angel you're crazy
When you're saving me
That’s The Sea and Cake. That’s the beginning of a new era in indie pop. That’s the reconstruction of a sacred aria too inviolable to speak ill of. That’s unknowingly saving someone through a song about the start of a story.

By: Mike LeChevallier
Published on: 2006-02-08
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