Webster Hall (2), 7 June 2007
A few years ago I kind of stumbled into The Sea and Cake when I decided to check 'em out "blind" at the Bowery Ballroom and was pretty much tickled to the point of calling "Uncle" that whole night. So, it was some anticipation that I made my way to Manhattan for their first trip back since then. This time, they were playing a single night at Webster Hall in lieu of the 3 nights they played at the Bowery last time. I always prefer the second option there, but I got to the club early enough and got close enough that it wouldn't really matter, I guess.
Well, different year, different room... same result. I have but one complaint about the Sea and Cake show from last Thursday night: too short. They appeared on stage and blasted into "Born on Crutches" from their new release, Everybody, and grabbed good and tight to my attention: mind and body both locked into the band from the get-go. Everything about this band flows through the drummer, John McEntire, who is a torrent of energy and motion. He is like the pop version of Stanton Moore: commanding your attention and yet ceding everything to the band. Moore:Galacticfunk::McEntire::galactic pop.
And it is galactic: spiraling stratospheric rock music that is light enough to escape the gravity of the rock club and elevate the average listener to a higher plane. The Sea and Cake is Goldilocks, everything is just right -- neither too loud nor too soft; not too fast, not too slow; gets you dancing, but keeps you thinking and listening real hard; melodic and compositionally lush, but never noodles out of control. It's like that perfect range when you're trying to sing in the shower: some notes are too high and some are too low for you to hit, but there's always that spot in the middle that just feels right and that is the Sea and Cake. Comfort zone, through and through. As a result, I feel like I could listen to it for hours and not tire of their unique washes of sound.
There is a implicit democracy in the band. While McEntire commands a lot of attention, he is one of four leaders in the band. Sam Prekop is the nominal front man and his voice -- an ethereal wisp of a vocal -- dominates the sound as much as anything. It's almost as he's whispering the lyrics to you, a secret to share with the audience. Archer Prewitt is, for all intents and purposes, the lead instrumentalist, the lead guitar player in a band where guitar solos are just a small slice of a ego-free ensemble. The chords played by both Prewitt and Prekop are like no guitar chords played on this planet. There is something magical and otherworldly about the sounds coming out of their instruments. Liberal use of the capo and occasional dalliances with an ebow by Prewitt round out the tone nicely. Likewise, McEntire plays rhythms that seem to be just a touch alien, making 4/4 time sound like Martian polyrhythms and occasionally -- by my count, at least -- traipsing into signatures rarely seen. When you have a drummer like McEntire who shades more toward the melodic, the bass player becomes the rock on which the rhythms are anchored. Erik Claridge is the arbitrator, negotiator and secretary-general forming a detente between rhythm and melody, locking into one or the other and making everything operate peacefully.
I was just a few rows of people back and couldn't have asked for better sound. I was "in the cloud" as I like to say -- the music was all around me and it sounded great. The crowd wasn't particularly rambunctious, but this isn't the sort of music that inspires a mania in people. Don't get me wrong, though, everyone was pretty into it, and I gotta give props to anyone that can love on this band, they can't have too many casual listeners. The music is casual, but it's deep and needs love.
The band did a great job mixing it up the whole night. Sure, pretty much the entirety of the new album poked it's head up throughout the set, but these were just parts of the whole, interspersed with plenty of older material. This really fleshed out the whole Sea and Cake sound perfectly and the band was able to construct a set that built to a nice crescendo. These guys are certainly best appreciated live. They don't really stretch things out, although the last few songs of the set seemed to go in that direction and their playing always hints at an ability and desire to just explode into some wide-ranging jams while keeping things on the level in real time. Still, the talents and energy and, frankly, watching McEntire play... it all pops into three dimensions in the live setting and for The Sea and Cake it seems to be the true rendering of their sound.
The last few songs packed a particular wallop. One meandered into the only real "jam" of the night... it was more of an ambient whoosh of noise -- no solos or anything -- with all four guys kind of locking in on a groove and their experience and ease with each other kind of flickered through the hum. The lights were perfect at this moment, blazing a little bit brighter and accenting just so the music swirling around on stage. The set ended and then the crowd really let 'em have it -- like they'd been holding back their enthusiasm for the very end, knowing they'd need their energy to show their appreciation for the wonderful music. "Left On" is one of many unique twists on the theme that The Sea and Cake extend to and it was a perfect encore to round out the night. Too short, but then again, anything more might have been too long.
Conversation heard on the way out:
Dude 1: So, what did you think?
Dude 2: I didn't really like it.
Dude 1: Bwah?
Lonely, Dear from Sweden opened. On another night in another spot, maybe they would have won me over, but they just seemed like half a decent band to me. Nothing too awful, certainly pleasant enough, but there was nothing to differentiate them from any other band out there. Half decent vocals, half decent songs, half decent playing... eh?
My stretch of getting blown away by opening acts seems sadly to have come to an end. I've had at least two discoveries stick to me deep down where it counts, though, St. Vincent and Emergency Party. As luck would have it, Emergency Party was playing a late set a moderate jaunt away from Webster Hall Thursday night. Then again, so was Wayne Krantz who I've neglected for far too long. Hmmmm... choices, choices. Two paths diverged in a yellowed downtown Manhattan and I chose the one less traveled... head east! Emergency Party it is!
Piano's, 7 June 2007
HOLY SHIT! I enjoyed their opening set back in February... immensely... but nothing prepared me for the real fucking party they threw just as the clock turned midnight into Friday morning. Everything I wrote back then holds true, but somehow there was something extra thrown into the potion at Piano's. Like a gas can thrown onto a manageable campfire, things quickly escalated to bonfire level and the crowd... well, what can I say about that crowd? It's a small room and pretty much from the first stanza they were deeply into it. I had that feeling like I had stumbled into some cult worship, but in the best possible sense, but there was an energy and an interaction between the crowd and the band that was as tight as I've seen anywhere. The room was just totally conducive to this and wild-eyed dancing and full-throttled moshing ensued amongst the friendly 30 or 40 anointed Emergency Partiers in attendance.
It's tough to describe the EP sound. I call it Zappunk -- some weird amalgam of Zappa's storytelling and prog meanderings cross-bred with an insanely high octane rock and roll energy of devil-may-care punk rock. Throw in a dose of irreverent sense of not taking themselves too seriously and somehow it all comes out in a wave of fist pumping, smile-inducing, jump-jump-jumping load of fun. I really don't know the last time I had that much fun. I was addicted from the first song and could have taken that pounding til deep in the morning had they chosen to take me there.
They wasted no time getting into it. The lead guy -- John? -- donned some sort of robe/cape/papal garment and sang over some hilarious samples using his auto-mechanic's flashlight as a faux-microphone and then they just launched into some nasty rock and roll. They flip over with lots of whiplash stops and starts with the drummer -- always the drummer -- bringing a next level kind of coherence to something that is utterly incoherent. That's the thing about this band, they are flailing all over the place, 3 guitars a drummer and a (female) bassist and yet they reach some pretty heady places... just really, really tight. The kind of tightness that comes years of not just playing with each other but actually knowing each other. Each musician has a keyboard near them which fills in the sound and then there are some fun samples on top of it, but make no mistake, this is not electronic music, it is a wonderfully weird, fractured take on the old standby: rock and roll.
The set was a 45 blitz of complete mania: a fireball of blazing energy. There was no letdown, no pause for breath, whenever they could, each song pretty much started on the heels of the previous one. The energy in the room was just freakin' unbelievable, a total freakout that I was happy to be getting down and dirty in. I can say no more than "holy shit!"
You can feel free to check out their myspace page, but anything recorded in the studio or even live will never do justice to sweating your ass off with these guys working on the stage in front of you. I've been really excited about a lot of bands bubbling up out of the NYC music scene -- some have been hits and some have been misses; some have gone on to hit it big and some have petered pretty much right out of existence. I won't say that these are the best or throw out any superlatives, but this is the band that I am presently most excited about in the city and will do everything in my power to go see. I cannot recommend you check them out highly enough.
The name of the band is The Emergency Party.
12 June 2007