Between Rock and a Soft Place

The Sea and Cake and the Mellow-Fidelity All-Stars.






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Publication: The Stranger
Author: Segal, Dave
Date published: November 30, 2011

Since 1994, the Sea and Cake have yet to break a sweat on record. Okay, "The Transaction" from The Biz and "Covers" from the latest release, The Moonlight Butterfly, work up a bit

of perspiration, but, overall, these Chicago rock dudes have made a solid career out of cruise-control rocking in a breezy manner that's contrary to their city's usual blusteriness. Even their remix EP, Two Gentlemen, reflects the innate business casualness in the Sea and Cake's demeanor.

The Sea and Cake possess an amazing equipoise and consistency. Over nine albums, they've hardly deviated from their trademark steez: a suave and stoic strain of indie rock that would rather lounge than lunge, cruise instead of crush. Their songs exude a jauntiness tempered with mild spikes of joy and dips of melancholy, but they never spill over too drastically in either direction. Save the drama for your mama, they imply.

What radiates strongest in the Sea and Cake is a steadfast mellowness, a sense that we'd all be better offjust chillin'. Easy does it-again and again-in the Sea and Cake's world. If you want exalted highs and depraved lows, look elsewhere. The Sea and Cake are gonna take you to the plateau between the summit and the pit and they're going to make you kinda/sorta enjoy it. If not, no biggie, bro. Their upcoming show at the Crocodile affords a chance to survey some of mellow music's peaks... but let's not get too carried away, eh? We have to get up early for work/school tomorrow.

Boards of Canada, "In a Beautiful Place out in the Country": Would you just look at that title... how could this not be the bucolic relaxer of tensions? These Scottish recluses are ultimate savants of electronic music that can make us urbanites crave splendid isolation and/or escapism in an oneiric/lysergic reverie. A weirdly Auto-Tuned androgynous voice beckons you to "live in a religious community in a beautiful place out in the country" over cushiony funk beats and contemplative keyboard swells. Irresistible.

The United States of America, "Cloud Song": "How sweet to be a cloud/Floating in the blue," sings Dorothy Moskowitz of the cult psychedelic band in a voice as wispy as the song's subject. She's backed by dewy guitar spangles, electric violin shivers, mincing harpsichord, and softly tapped toms. The cumulus effect is soooo dreamy.

The Rolling Stones, "Coming Down Again": The Stones' greatest Keith Richards- voiced cut about which nobody talks, "Coming Down Again" stands as the flip side to the rowdy revels of "Tumblin' Dice" and "Before They Make Me Run." As the title implies, this Goats Head Soup gem is all about the aftermath of another debauchery, of which Keef knew like the back of his syringe. ("Smoked my tongue in someone else's pipe/ Tastin' better every time"? Wowow.) The resigned mood is pitch-perfect and Richards's weary drawl nails that sense of hollowed-out regret. Nicky Hopkins's elegiac piano rules, too.

William DeVaughn, "Be Thankful for What You Got": Silky soul rarely gets better than this 1974 hit. "Be Thankful" is some kind of apotheosis of laid-back cool, its tranquil lope as consoling as the lyrics. Be thankful for William DeVaughn's supreme musical gift.

Johnny Guitar Watson, "A Real Mother for Ya": This is some serious horizontal funk. Johnny Guitar Watson, one of the coolest motherfuckers ever to enter a studio, laments the woeful state of the economy during Jimmy Carter's reign over a glistening funk slouch that suggests we can overcome our sad state of affairs by shagging away our worries to the man's spangly guitar peals, pimpalicious vocals, and knowing asides. Oh shit, Johnny got you open.

Spacemen 3, "Call the Doctor": So many songs could've made this list from mellowpsych classic The Perfect Prescription, but "Call the Doctor" gets the nod (obligatory S3 smack allusion) for its thematic resonance and shivery desperation, all rendered in sublimely subdued tones. You can feel the cold sweat beading on Jason Pierce's forehead as he sings the fixin'-to-OD blues.

Fruit Bats, "Flamingo": Few waltz-time tunes sigh with the loveliness of "Flamingo." Fruit Bats main man Eric D. Johnson falsettos, "Everything is gonna be just fine" over some soul-stirring, slo-mo, merry-go-round rock, and, against the odds, he convincingly sells that outlandish statement's truth.

TW Walsh, "Rattling Jar": A riveting song sung with exquisite fragility and well-earned self-pity by Walsh in a super-sparse arrangement: quiet acoustic guitar mesmerism and the faintest of harmonica parps. "The devil comes round with his rattling jar/Wherever we are." Damn.

Brian Eno, "I'll Come Running": Of course this ambient-music pioneer boasts a treasure trove of mellow jams in him, but "I'll Come Running" is the should've-been-chart-topper that stands highest in my ears. Elevated by what Eno dubs Robert Fripp's "restrained lead guitar," "I'll Come Running" is a chivalrous ballad in which Eno vows to "come running to tie your shoes." Valiant!

Mercury Rev, "Frittering": Much of Mercury Rev's classic 1992 debut album Yerself Is Steam is turbulent, but "Frittering" is a necessary respite from the chaos. The blueprint is basically post-Syd Pink Floyd in blissedout driftmode. A slack acoustic-guitar strum gradually blooms into a vast space-rock sojourn, but you somehow still feel like you're sinking into a beanbag chair the size of the universe.

Nick Drake, everything he ever recorded: I was going to recommend "River Man" or "Way to Blue," as they're truly among the most soulful, sanctified pieces of folk pop ever, but, fug it, Drake's entire canon-primarily Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter, and Pink Moon-is melancholy, mellow gold. Recline to it all.

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