(Thrill Jockey, CD)
Chicago indie legend Sam Prekop  has spent most of his career incorporating non-rock flavors into his smooth-as-silk compositions. As the leader of the celebrated outfit The Sea & Cake, he combined world music, elevator jazz and crisp electronica in an intricate sound that helped define post-rock. Who's Your New Professor, Prekop's second solo effort, doesn't stray too far from this formula. While somewhat less clinical than recent Sea & Cake releases, it's nonetheless incredibly pristine.
Prekop has always been something of a crooner; his delicate voice and whisper-thin melodies are pleasant, if somewhat milquetoast. The 11 tunes on his latest are like cotton candy for the late-twentysomething set -- the perfect soundtrack to a grad-school romance. A multi-instrumentalist, Prekop has a remarkable understanding of texture and space and employs both to evoke moods ranging from the seductively playful to the delicately melancholic.
The first track, "Something," opens with a delicate guitar arpeggio that drifts hazily over a gurgling synth line and staggered drum figure. Prekop's subdued vocals make the lyrics often difficult to decipher, but it doesn't really matter -- his singing is simply another pastel hue in the music's tonal spectrum.
The jazzy bounce of "Two Dedications" is engagingly simple. With its mellow sway and catchy refrain, the song achieves a laid-back intimacy that is often absent from his work with Sea & Cake. "Chicago People" shimmers like heat waves on blacktop; its muted horn lines stretch out over the mellow groove with tranquil refinement. Prekop's falsetto doubles the guitar melodies in the song's chorus, while the relaxed bass line fleshes out the lilting chord progression.
Perhaps the album's most upbeat number, "Little Bridges" features wah-wah guitar and crisp rimshots. Unfortunately, a studious distance prevents Prekop and his associates from really laying into it: Prekop's funk is restrained and symmetrical -- a post-modern approximation of r&b. Toms and cymbals rumble like far-off thunder on the graceful "Between Outside." Hushed and fragile, the song winds along slowly, bringing the album to a contemplative close.
Prekop's deft arrangement skills and broad musical palette are more sophisticated than your average acoustic strumming singer-songwriter. Yet if you strip away the jazzy inflections and production intricacies, you're left with what amounts to a soft-rock album -- the modern-day equivalent of a late '70s Al Stewart release. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- it's just something for the modern hipster to consider. Hear Prekop Wednesday, July 1, at Club Metronome with James Yorkston and Swale.