ALBUM REVIEW: Sam Prekop – ‘Comma’: further into wordless ‘tronica melodies

EMERGING from that Chicago scene so ripe with cross-fertilisation and ideas around the turn of the century, Sam Prekop was part of that fountain of creativity that brought us Tortoise, Bobby Conn, Jim O’Rourke’s shift into pop melodicism, Freakwater; many more.

Sam himself cut his recording teeth alongside Archer Prewitt and John McEntire in The Sea & Cake, weaving bewitching and off-kilter alternative guitar pop melodies before striking out on his own with an absolutely delightful self-titled set in 1999 that weaved almost cafe-jazz guitar chords and percussion into the breathiest, lightest set. A bit of a hidden gem, it remains one of my absolute favourite records of the period.

Since 2010’s Old Punch Card, a venture into the whirrs and bleeps of experimental retrotronica, Sam has moved deeper into electronics; 2015’s The Republic pulled back from the rawer, clipboard-carrying and goggles-wearing edge of what could be done with early Moogs and the like; and now Comma takes that that melodicism and sprinkles motorik over the top for a delicious confection.

Take opener “Park Line”: it imagines itself into being with chord melodies built on a slow, violining attack. Twin melodic lines burble and chatter and glimmer over a filtered beat that has propulsion written right through it. There’s a bright futurism to the whole, which would make for an enthralling headphone companion to a journey across Chicago on its metro system, the ‘L’. If you had to play the references game you’d have to say Berlin’s Monolake: that sense of urban optimism, of lofty architecture and progress.

“Summer Places” has layer upon layer of bright melodic shift. There’s a synthesised rhythm that suggests the polyrhythmic brush work of past compatriot John McEntire taught him well. “Comma” itself, the title track, draws heavily on what strikes the ears as a certain Japanese approach to the percussion: that wood block sound. Meanwhile electronica pips and sweeps; it gains an almost techno groove. The whole is hypnotic and beguiling and vanishes too quickly. You could happily wig out to a full ten minutes of this.

“September Remember” is more introspective and autumnal. There’s just the suggestion of a worn record at the beginning before slow beauty floods your bloodstream. It sounds like it might be on Kranky: amniotic and drowsy, wrapping you. It has a coda of descending folksiness that bewitches. It’s nothing if not a little bit Wicker Man: music to enact rituals to somewhere in the summer corn.

“The New Last” plays out in the mournful, landscape beauty of Boards of Canada and brings a tremulous bell-like chatter to underpin its rainy-day atmospheres. “Approaching” is a light sketch, a slowing, again suggesting a journey up on the ‘L’; the tracks unfold in front, the buildings crowd in. The melody unleashes a raw spatter of overdriven sound. Melody, of course, wins the day after textual divergence.

“Circle Line” is all high and bright glimmer; like direct sunlight striking back off office buildings, it dazzles. There’s a voicing like an autoharp. “Never Met” perhaps steps closest out of any track here to a pure late-70s’/ early 80s’ experimental tronica number, in terms of pacing and texture. It strays out into alien noisescapes, all pulses and fractures, heavily treated; while “Wax Wing” begins in a rarified fragility, it progresses through an early OMD bittersweet tonality, swells, and gathers up its skirts for a pulsing journey. We’re back in Berlin pulsing drones and it’s the perfect place to be. 

It all concludes with “Above Our Heads”: another oblique reference to the ‘L’? The chatter of rails and phasing may suggest so. And we’re done, at journey’s end.

So why should you buy it? Because it’s damn pretty. Because as with everything Sam touches, he creates with a deft and light touch, a real lover’s caress of the form. It charts his course out from his leftfield indie guitar berth on the Chicago shore, ever deeper into Lake Michigan and the sonic possibilities his plumbline suggests. Let him take the tiller. As you were, No.2.

Sam Prekop’s Comma will be released by Thrill Jockey on September 11th on both trad black and white vinyl, CD and digital formats. Click through to order yours at Bandcamp or Thrill Jockey.

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