Archer Prewitt has a long track record of releasing extremely
critic-friendly albums, both with his band, The Sea and Cake, and on his own. The press on the guy has been virtually bulletproof, and I recognized that to another Splendid staffer, seeing this disc in his review shipment would be a very pleasant surprise.
Alas, I have never been on Mr. Prewitt's bandwagon, as I've always felt that The Sea and Cake's albums were too smarty-pants proggy for their own good. I think of bands like them and Tortoise as the indie rock equivalent of Phish: very talented musicians who make enormously complicated, virtuosic music that leaves me totally unmoved.
That confession made, I have to say that this is one hell of a good album.
Prewitt has turned his prodigious talents toward making a perfect, vaguely French-poppy rock and roll album, and has found that the style suits him. The result is an album with all of the production bells and whistles that Dave Fridmann has so popularized in recent years, an album that retains the intelligence of Prewitt's Sea and Cake work and melds it to rock and roll songcraft.
Three starts off with a declarative guitar figure reminiscent of the anthemic opening to Lou Reed's 1992 Magic and Loss; the song it introduces, "Over the Line", does not rock out as much as the lead-in might suggest, but the opener does portend some really (especially by Sea and Cake standards) loud guitar workouts. "Tear Me All Away", for instance, almost snarls as it begins, before settling into harpsichords and "la-la"s. "No Defense" is built on a solid foundation of power chords. Okay, so Prewitt's predilection for prog rock means it rocks like "Owner of a Lonely Heart" rocks, but while I've always loathed that Yes song intensely, "No Defense" definitely works, ridiculous chromatic bridge progression and all.
Not that Three is all about the rock; certainly, most of its allure comes from its intense prettiness. At just the right time, Prewitt introduces the cello/bassoon/marimba/chime that makes the song; this is not a talent to take lightly. He seems well aware that anyone who chooses to make complex, nuanced, jazz-chorded rock songs is always a razor's edge away from Jethro Tull, and he therefore balances his artiest tendencies against solid chops and riffs.
Not content with the clash of these sensibilities, Prewitt makes game stabs at Fleetwood Mac ("When I'm With You"), full-on mid-'70s "more flutes, dammit" AM radio ("Two Can Play"), and a sort of Unrest/recent Mercury Rev hybrid ("Gifts of Love"). These comparisons give short shrift to the songs in question, all of which are unique accomplishments that stand out in an already impressive and singular record.
Three is almost an hour long, and there are, of course, low points: the lethargic "Atmosphere" treads into Lambchop territory, but without the willingness to give itself completely over to soul that is the latter band's bread and butter. "Behind Your Sun" has all of the prog, but none of the motive force that makes "No Defense" great. These form a one-two punch that almost put the listener to sleep in the middle of the record.
Thankfully, the album ends very well. "The Race", while measured and contemplative, is not as self-indulgent as "Atmosphere", and the purity of its melody is apparent. It builds to a Ziggy Stardust chorus that is just about breathtaking. "The Day To Day" is one of the simplest and most anthemic tracks on the record, and leaves a pleasant taste in the listener's mouth.
Three is good enough that I have dusted off my Sea and Cake records and am willing to give them another try. Whether they have improved with age or not, I feel confident in saying that the next time Mr. Prewitt pulls into New York on his own, I'll be there.