How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
Chicago singer/songwriter Sam Prekop steps away from his group The Sea and Cake for Who's Your New Professor, his second solo album. Gone are the West African influences of Prekop's eponymously titled 1999 solo CD; instead, Prekop opts for an austere, even airier group sound. Fortunately the group is a great one, comprised as it is of drummer Chad Taylor, cornetist Rob Mazurek (who together make up the Chicago Underground Duo), Sticks & Stones bassist Josh Abrams, and Sea and Cake guitarist Archer Prewitt. Sea and Cake drummer John McEntire adds synthesizer, percussion, and his vaunted recording and mixing skills. The result is an album of exquisite miniatures where small gestures and offhanded melodies add up to gorgeous, buoyant pop.
"Pop in the sense that the music is jazzy, but isn't jazz; has a rock feel but doesn't rock. "Pop in the sense that it hangs on Prekop's double-tracked, buttery vocals. The track called "Something is typical: Prekop's and Prewitt's chiming, oddly-tuned electric guitars levitate over Taylor's relaxed, mid-tempo groove and Abrams' pulsing bass. Mazurek's overdubbed trumpets are all color and warmth, and then there's Prekop's vocal: conversational and seemingly composed of lyrical asides, it never tries too hard and its melody insinuates rather than overwhelms. If this is pop music, its qualities resonate over repeated listenings, not from the first play.
"Magic Step is an instrumental with a Taylor club-style breakbeat that recalls parts of last year's Chicago Underground Trio's outstanding Slon: live drums that mimic electronica. McEntire's shimmering analog synths are perfectly placed on top of jazzy acoustic guitars not unlike those of the beloved 1980s band the Feelies. "Dot Eye starts with the guitarists playing over McEntire's percussion, then morphs into a rock groove where Prewitt's grainy, soaring lead guitar answers the question "what would Neil Young and Crazy Horse sound like with a really good drummer?
"A Splendid Hollow is a brief, mantra-like vignette, all bell-like Prewitt arpeggios, and its placement before "C + F makes the latter tune seem positively ebullient, with Taylor's disco-style snare hard-slapping on the twos and fourseven though the song is in a traditional African-sounding 6/4 (so there is, perhaps, a wee bit of African influence here). When Mazurek's effected cornets and McEntire's space synths join in, it's pure epiphany: one of the great moments on the CD.
"Density may be the most purely bucolic track, with fascinating ride and snare work from Taylor; Prekop's and Prewitt's guitars hang suspended like clouds on a summer field andto complete the metaphorMazurek's cornets cut through the cumulus like brilliant sunbeams.
The album's closer, "Between Outside, has dark acoustic bass from Abrams and simmering cymbal work from Taylor, slowly building tensiononly to have the song fade to silence, tension unresolved. It's typically oblique in its refusal to make the big statement. It's this haunting absencethis use of absence as a palpable presencethat repeatedly pulls me back to Who's Your New Professor.
Track Listing: 1. Something 2. Magic Step 3. Dot Eye 4. Two Dedications 5. Chicago People 6. Little Bridges 7. A Splendid Hollow 8. C + F 9. Neighbor to Neighbor 10. Density 11. Between Outside
Personnel: Sam Prekop: vocals, guitar, piano; Josh Abrams: acoustic and electric bass, acoustic and electric piano; Rob Mazurek: cornet; Archer Prewitt: guitar, piano; Chad Taylor: drums; John McEntire: synthesizer, percussion