Dinosaur Jr. was one of the first groups to combine two distinctly different kinds of heavy. By the band’s second album, 1987’s YOU’RE LIVING ALL OVER ME, they’d essentially perfected their mixture of punk and hard rock, paving the way for Nirvana and the whole grunge explosion. Dino’s achievement was unique in the specificity of its makeup however, drawing upon the density of hardcore, the aggressive sludginess of early Sabbath and the bruising melodic dynamic of Crazy Horse. Yes, there were also small flashes of softer acoustic based stuff, but this largely took a back seat to Mascis’ dual roles as laconic vocalist and scorching guitar hero, particularly after bassist Lou Barlow exited the picture and initiated the long prickly journey of his often unplugged solo work. But it was apparent to anybody who stuck with J’s work post-GREEN MIND that he could work quite satisfactorily in a more acoustic context, though the guy defiantly, determinedly remained plugged in; with the righteous regrouping of the original Dinosaur a few years ago, it appeared that the chances for a quieter, stripped down Mascis to assert himself were suddenly slimmer than ever. Well, my personal odds have been defied, for that wily longhair has just kicked out SEVERAL SHADES OF WHY, a collection of ten mostly acoustic songs that find a lesser explored side of the man’s work opening up like a fresh blossom. What’s nice is how the set has been methodically crafted as a fully fleshed out group of tunes, completely eschewing any “unfinished’ or “demo-ish” qualities. Much of the reason for this is due to his splendid supporting cast. Yes, this is a “solo” record in name only, with contributions from such esteemed names as Kurt Vile, Matt Valentine, Kurt Fedora, Kevin Drew (Broken Social Scene), Ben Bridwell (Band of Horses), Pall Jenkins (Black Heart Procession), Suzanne Thorpe (Mercury Rev/Wounded Knees) and Sophie Trudeau (Godspeed You Black Emperor/A Silver Mt. Zion). Everybody conspires to craft a superb early morning listen, the kind that inspires the busting open of springtime windows, letting the sunshine and crisp air flood in, the music mingling with the gleeful freedom of chirping birds and the delicious scent of brewing coffee. Pour a cup, sit back and let the day unwind. Sneaky electricity doesn’t really assert itself until track 5 “Is It Done” and then in the form of a typically loose and lazily gorgeous solo from the fingers of J, and that’s essentially the dominant mode of the LP’s amped accents (though closer “What Happened” does work up a bit of crunch muscle). But there are other joys to be had. The layering of Trudeau’s violin with J’s crisp picking on the title track is likely to please partisans of Nick Drake, the dark country singalong strum of “Not Enough” feels like a campfire readymade, and Thorpe’s wispy flute on “Make It Right” recalls the maypole-cavorting lightness of Brit-psyche-folk and is the closest this record gets to the blessed-out sweetness of fellow New Englander's Damon & Naomi. “Where Are You” feels like tough ‘60s New York streetcorner folk ala John Sebastian or Fred Neil, and it contrasts well with the fragile indie minimalism (think Mountain Goats or Bright Eyes) of “Too Deep”. The album’s penultimate track “Can I” is a dusty sun-baked western shamble, and its stretched-out atmosphere really points to the understated diversity of the whole record. SEVERAL SHADES OF WHY is simply an outstanding album from a reliable, sturdy hand. Hopefully he’ll grace us with a follow-up before too long.
The Sea and Cake started way back in the mid-‘90s as a sort of Chicago supergroup, with members Sam Prekop and Eric Claridge hailing from the still confoundingly underappreciated Shrimp Boat, Archer Prewitt arriving from the very fine and somewhat misunderstood Coctails and John McEntire being known most prominently as a member of Tortoise. The connection with Tortoise and the Thrill Jockey label found the band lumped into the whole post-rock thing, which made sense back then due to the fresh direction they and their cohorts were taking, essentially avoiding the standard indie trappings of loud, distorted guitars and well worn song structures. This isn’t to imply that The Sea and Cake lacked precedent; it’s just that their forbearers were largely quite neglected. The Scene is Now, Mofungo, Fish & Roses and late-era Talk Talk all figure as stylistic antecedents to what The Sea and Cake were doing, and I think it’s safe to throw the Minutemen in there (more for ideology than overt sonic similarities) as well. Initially, The Sea and Cake provided a fresh, smart alternative to a bunch of indie-rock dead ends, a quality they shared with such diverse ‘90s artists/acts as Gastr Del Sol, Jim O’Rourke, Rodan, Slint, Shipping News, Ui, Labradford, Stereolab, Mogwai and Don Caballero. Now that most of those names have faded away and post-rock has become an accepted if still debated form of underground musical affairs, it’s time to laud The Sea and Cake for sticking it out. They have a new album set to arrive next month, but first things first: 2008’s fantastic CAR ALARM is an excellent entry point for the uninitiated, full of what’s become a trademark sound. Specifically, the area in which they excel is in delivering a deceptively light/airy twin guitar attack propelling pop songwriting that’s tough as diamonds. People often speak of jazz in relation to this the band, and that’s fitting but not in the expected way. Their proclivity for Brazilian/Caribbean strains and rhythms finds them closer to the relaxed attractiveness of Stan “Samba” Getz than the muscular dynamism of Coltrane, though there is also the modal thing (sort of a post-rock Chicago thing), so Miles is all up in there too. The rhythmic thrust courtesy of McEntire and Claridge is crisp and propulsive, never far away from Krautrock motorik, that Autobahn inspired ceaseless simplicity that’s proven so influential to post-punk, post-rock and general indie/u-ground affairs. The band’s use of electronics is non-gimmicky and perfectly integrated into their attack, balanced with the traditional instrumentation so that no one element overwhelms the other. As far as contemporary references go, I feel safe in recommending this to folks that dig Broken Social Scene (with whom The Sea and Cake toured), the Godspeed/Silver Mt. Zion Constellation Records crew and even the techy-instrumental prog of Battles, but it’ll also likely go down a storm with anybody swayed by the recent work from Scottish guitar popsters The Clientele. That’s what’s called diversity. With that said CAR ALARM is very much its own thing. The Sea and Cake have eight full albums to their credit, which points to their position as survivors from the fertile ‘90s indie scene, and they seem poised for a fresh round of activity. I look forward to where they're headed.