KENTUCKY NATIVE Archer Prewitt has been playing in bands for more than a dozen years—most notably in the charming art-pop outfit the Coctails (now defunct) and the dreamy, jazz-inflected group the Sea and Cake. Though he's lived in Chicago for most of this decade, Prewitt still speaks with a slight drawl and a deliberate cadence, the mark of his rural upbringing. Like many musicians from Chicago's current scene, in addition to being a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Prewitt is also an accomplished visual artist. He's the man behind the cute but smart comic Sof' Boy, which has spawned a handmade doll and a yearly calendar. Most recently Prewitt has been spotted in the studio and on the road with Edith Frost and with Sea and Cake frontman Sam Prekop, but in 1997 he made an important first step: He recorded his first solo album, the baroque-pop Into the Sun. The follow-up, White Sky, was released last month by Carrot Top Records.
Breakroom, Friday, November 12
Prewitt says playing the background role for so long prompted him to step out front. "The Coctails had dissolved, and the Sea and Cake were the main musical outlet for me, and yet I wasn't really offered a voice in that other than accompanying guitar and maybe the occasional song tossed in the mix," he says. "It got to a point where this backlog of music sort of needed a vehicle. I just wanted it to be heard. At the time I was recording it, I wasn't necessarily thinking about releasing it. But after the amount of work I'd put into it, it just seemed like a good idea to see if Carrot Top would put it out."
He soon learned that attaching his own name to a record brought newfound privileges. "I got to call all the shots [when I made Into the Sun], and for financial reasons, I did a lot of preplanning, a lot of four-track work and trial and elimination things with arrangements beforehand. With [White Sky] it was different because the arrangements were arrived at more through practice sessions and dynamics arrived at through touring. So when we came right off tour [for Into the Sun] we recorded the new album. It had that band input, it wasn't just borne from my own mind. I think that's why it's a stronger record," he says. "I believe that albums are like plateaus or stepping-off points. They help you understand or document a period of music. You can then step from that point and try to make a better record."
Much of Into the Sun's strength lay in its solitary vision, that of one songwriter who invited some friends to help fill in some empty spaces. White Sky makes the most of his live band, whose principals also include bassist Mark Greenberg, a former Coctail, and drummer Steve Goulding, sax/flute player Paul Mertens, and keyboardist/trumpeter Dave Max Crawford, all of Poi Dog Pondering. The album's rich sound reflects the unit's cohesion, and the lush arrangements put Prewitt in a league with the short-lived Cardinal or the High Llamas. "It was just a real freedom to allow the band to be recorded and to not have to think about what the bass line should sound like," Prewitt says. "This time everybody took their places and did what they did. Like the horns are recorded live, which gave it a lot of energy when we were in the studio. It wasn't just a series of overdubs like the first one. I'd like to go even more in the direction of [recording live]. Because a lot of the recordings I like have that feeling. A lot of Neil Young's records, except for the vocal overdubs, are pretty much live."
Prewitt captures some of that spirit with the plodding rhythm, harmonica, and fiery lead guitar line on "Walking on the Farm," which on album extends to eight minutes and has a cinematic flair. To gain that Neil Young-ish feel on stage, Prewitt has taken to wearing the type of around-the-neck harmonica holder favored by Young and any number of folkies.
CLAD IN A RETRO suede-and-wool sweater and wire-framed glasses at a recent New York City performance, the pencil-thin Prewitt maintains a low-key stage presence. Maybe that's because after years playing with various bands, he's just finding his way at the front of the stage. "There's less pressure on me [when I play with the Sea and Cake]. I feel more in the shadow," Prewitt confesses. "I think part of the reason it's difficult is because they're my songs, and it's more stressful and scary. I feel silly sometimes when I'm up there. The songs that you write in your living room, you're playing them with all these other musicians in front of an audience. It just seems kind of crazy. . . . And I must say I don't work really hard at being entertaining or being someone who engages the audience. Because I feel more like keeping my mouth shut and playing the music."
And when his voice sounds as wrenchingly beautiful as it does on the pleading "I'll Be Waiting," which closes White Sky, there's no reason to argue.