The C in The Sea and Cake (is for Consistency): Live at Littlefield, Brooklyn, 10/21/12

on Oct 23, 2012
Most in the audience won't know it until later, but Matthew Friedberger, of Fiery Furnaces fame, is turning forty years old tonight at Littlefield in Brooklyn. There are worse ways to go over the hill. Friedberger is alone on stage, walking calmly back and forth between two chairs, one at a keyboard and one at a sampler; the creation process as performance. What sound like fragments of different songs shoot forth one after another to make a continuous pulsing, intriguing, confusing whole. Occasionally, he stops in between the two chairs to speak an equally fragmented narrative into the mic - "I went to the bar where we met...the bar was closed...". It compels you to try to listen like you've heard it a dozen times and digested it all already. The cover art of his sister's recent solo album showed off an impressive head of hair, but Friedberger's thick chin-length bangs, which at times hide his entire face, are also something. Some families have all the genes.

Matthew Friedberger, getting psyched for birthday shots
There's another notable birthday in the house this evening: The Sea and Cake's Car Alarm was officially released four years ago today. Over that time, the album has proven itself to be not just a period highlight, but a highlight, period. One in a career with few, if any, low points. Sure, their music has had relative ups and downs over the past twenty years, but their career arc is not so much an arc as it is a slight bend. An initial creative burst, followed by a few mellowing records, followed by the current creative burst.

"If they were me/if they were me/and I was you/and I was you"
If there were inter-band discussions that led up to their third-act reinvigoration, one might imagine the weight of persuasion fell on getting drummer John McEntire fully on board, given how much of the physical burden falls on his arms. On the other hand, considering the dexterous fills he splashes out across the prolonged introduction of The Fawn favorite "The Argument" in the middle of the set, maybe it was his idea as much as anyone else's. Speaking of fills, Doug McCombs (of Tortoise and others) is filling in for bassist Eric Claridge, learning some of his lines in less time than it takes for guitarist Archer Prewitt to re-tune between songs.

About that initial creative burst -- most bands don't get their start by releasing three acclaimed records in a row in less than two years. At least not very often since the 1960's. Looking at it now, it's like The Sea and Cake were determined to create a rich catalog to cull from as soon as possible. Here, they reach back to their debut for "Jacking the Ball," but leave Nassau's "Parasol" off the set list, which made an appearance the last time they swung through town. There always have to be trade-offs. It must be getting equally difficult for them to pick between gems from the run they started with 2007's Everybody, and which continues with the recently released Runner.

The Sea and Cake have always been well measured, but as they've progressed, they've also done some streamlining and sanding down of the edges. Keys, for one. Ears can be deceiving, but by the end of the set it seems like a lot of the songs have started off with Sam Prekop playing the same chord on his guitar. A tool for grandiosity in most any other player's hands, when Archer Prewitt picks his e-bow up from the small tray on his mic stand, he wields it with tasteful restraint. One might imagine that, were he to start pounding at his pick-ups with a horsehair bow, it would somehow come out sounding refined.

Tasteful e-bow?

To the extent that it ever did, Sam Prekop's voice doesn't match up with his appearance all that much. His endearing chamomile tones suggest a slighter, more prim and bookish visage, not so much old jeans and untucked shirts. As is everything else about The Sea and Cake, Prekop's voice is subtle but distinct, and without question necessary to make the band whole. That considered, it is interesting how much Prekop has held back on both Runner and last year's The Moonlight Butterfly, and how light on vocals much of the material in this set is, not that his singing would ever risk overshadowing the rest of the band.

Having set them in place from the outset, the band has been gently nudging at their own boundaries since bringing in electronic elements with 1997's The Fawn. Car Alarm's title track and "Aerial," both sadly missing, brought in head-nodding rock. "Weekend" and "Harps," both gladly present and accounted for, fashion a kind of Sea and Cake dance music for swaying along with. They even end the night with the closest thing to a 'space rock dirge' they've written. All without ever leaving the comfort of their zone.