Sharps & flats

Archer Prewitt's songs sound like they were written on a piece of shag carpet resting in a slice of sun.

Published October 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Archer Prewitt spent his formative years in indie rock suited up in a coat and tie, playing avant-lounge with the young Chicagoans known as the Coctails. Since that band's 1995 demise, Prewitt has shed the monkey suit several times over. As a member of the Sea and Cake, he recorded four albums of mellow minimalist pop. Then, in 1997, Prewitt released his first solo album, the understated, orchestrated "In the Sun."

"White Sky," his second solo effort, isn't a radical departure from its predecessor, but it proves that Prewitt is a singular talent, an assured songwriter whose work borrows from pop's past and sparkles with contemporary charms. The nine songs -- based on folk-rock, funk, bachelor pad ballads and soul -- linger even without lyrical hooks or verse-chorus-verse obviousness. They feel like something Prewitt dreamed up while lying on a shag carpet in a slice of mid-afternoon sun. What makes them special is that Prewitt infuses the laid-back aura with an overt but never alienating intelligence. He makes the music tell the story: His arrangements create images through subtle shifts in instrumentation.

The joyful opener, "Raise on High," begins with a few notes of chiming electric guitar, eventually builds into a tune driven by horns, then fades out with a flute-and-string serenade. "Shake" is primarily an exercise in white-boy funk, but seamlessly weaves other sounds of the '70s -- jazz-bewitched Joni Mitchell, disco sweep -- into the mix. "Motorcycle," the album's big, sprawling rock tune, has lots of muscle, and the folk-jam looseness makes it easy to forgive the questionable Van Halen-esque lead guitar.

Assisting Prewitt in fleshing out his own Mellotron and guitar sounds are several Chicago musicians who backed him up on "In the Sun." Next to players like Dave Max Crawford, Susan Voelz, Edith Frost and ex-Coctail Mark Greenberg, Prewitt's warm, reedy vocals are almost always low in the mix, which is part of the point. Prewitt uses the texture of the music to give emotional weight to lyrics that can be a little pallid. On "Last Summer Days," for instance, Prewitt sings, almost sighs, "Hey, now/Where you going to?" The song, about a seasonal romance, suddenly turns from lush, bittersweet "Norwegian Wood" folk to minor-keyed acoustic guitar. Within a few bars, he's put your heart in your throat. She left him, and you can hear it in the music.

By Carlene Bauer

Carlene Bauer is an editor at Elle magazine.

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