SAM PREKOP with JAMES YORKSTON at the Horseshoe (368 Queen West), Saturday (May 28). $12. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
It's easy to romanticize the career of Sam Prekop.
The guy's been a Windy City post-rock pioneer since the mid-80s as part of Shrimp Boat and later Sea and Cake, and his Thrill Jockey back catalogue is as solid as the Swiss Alps.
He also has a burgeoning career as a visual artist, with prints and paintings in Manhattan galleries. His aesthetic, like much of his music, is minimalist but heartfelt, the free-form abstraction of his art undergirded by a subtle structure.
Perhaps unmitigated jealousy, then, explains the glee I feel at hearing the placid Prekop's brain cells boiling as he ponders the question I've just posed: which would he rather pursue if forced to choose between art and music?
"Um, I don't know," he says after a pause over his cell shortly after touching down in Los Angeles for the first show of a tour supporting his mesmerizing sophomore solo disc, Who's Your New Professor.
"I mean, the music has always been a fluke accident. I was thinking I would be an artist - it was in art school that I decided on a whim to do Shrimp Boat.
"Actually," he realizes, "I make my living through music, so it would be difficult to choose. I support my art through my music, but I guess I'd have to say art."
There's actually little separating Prekop's two mediums of expression. He's responsible for the art and design of his own album, and from the hazy way he speaks of the five years spent between his debut and Professor, you get the sense that the line between them is blurring.
"After the first record, I did a bunch of touring and felt that the band really came together. When we were finished, I wanted to make another record with this group; I thought it would be a shame not to. But I don't know where the time went. It just sort of slipped away."
Wherever it slipped, it's evident from Who's Your New Professor that Prekop's knack for creating lackadaisical songs with kinetic undercurrents never did slip from his grasp.
It's also apparent that Prekop has de-emphasized the Brazilian touch. He tells me he was less obsessed with the influence this time out. While crisp, lush and imbued with sophisticated jazz signatures, unpredictable chord progressions, melancholy poetics and unusual song structures, the project essentially boils down to pop so blissful it's guaranteed to make you forget about your credit card debt.
Take the track Something, with Rob Mazurek's gently harmonized cornets, uptempo acoustic lines and pattering percussion. The atmosphere calls to mind Modest Mouse at their most reflective, not to mention, obviously, the sound of Prekop's Thrill Jockey labelmates Tortoise.
Just what is it about Chicago in particular, I ask, that inspires such relaxed rock?
"I know that what we do is laid-back, but I don't know if it represents the whole scene, really," he says. "As a scene, it's been really important that the audience is there, that people pay attention to what's in the clubs. It's been an important factor in keeping the scene going, and it's big, so the scene supports various facets of music.
"But I don't know what it is that's making everyone so mellow."