Release Date: Sep 17, 2012
Record label: Thrill Jockey
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Indie Pop, Post-Rock
The perceived dichotomy between what goes on at the cultural margins, and what is current in the mainstream is a misleading one. The relationship between the two is too often regarded as a polar one, an opposition. However the reality is more complicated, and more creative, than such simple reductionism. The centre will feed off the margins, and vice versa, in a reciprocal arrangement; the imaginary borders between the two worlds are porous, allowing influence and inspiration to filter through in both directions.
The Sea and Cake are one of those bands that may not seem all that different now from when they started. Their brand of sweet power-pop has been called, often, jazz-like or jazz influenced, but that's mostly because you can't quite pin down what's so different about their sound, and really to pin it to jazz is to miss the myriad influences and cultures that inform the band's sound. And it's that subtle complexity that has kept the band fresh, even as their albums do feel like variations on the same set of themes.
The Sea and Cake are an ebb-and-flow group, often releasing albums in spurts and then going their separate ways -- which, considering their array of side projects, is many different ways. After a multi-year rest following the late-2000s burst of Everybody and Car Alarm, the quartet returned to the studio again to produce a mini-LP, 2011's The Moonlight Butterfly, and then its full-album companion, 2012's Runner. Extending the aims and themes of the group's late renaissance, Runner is less a guitar album and more an electronics album, with songs that rest on fewer chord changes and more synth wash.
The Sea and Cake is a relaxed, jazz-rhythm of a band. Songs bloom with a pop, then freeze; Sam Prekop’s inimitable mumbles are so melodic yet gently expressed, the music could cease and recline at any minute. So Runner starts with impressive purpose, in part formed from an initial writing period with modular synths. “On and On” is the closest thing the band has to an outright indie-pop song.
Nothing reminds you that you've been taking the Sea and Cake for granted quicker than listening to a new Sea and Cake album. When they play together, John McEntire, Sam Prekop, Archer Prewitt, and Eric Claridge occupy an indie rock niche all their own, and their utter consistency at turning out well-wrought, prettily cerebral records might help explain why they've never met a hype cycle that paid them any mind in spite of the quality of their music. Trends come and go, but the Sea and Cake are more or less constant, and have been for almost 20 years.
True to their name, the Sea and Cake really are as sweet as meringue and as soothing as warm waves breaking over one’s toes. Their 10th album, Runner, offers catchy lullabies underscored with just enough melancholy to confirm it’s the end of summer and finds the band in much the same mood they’ve been in since 1997, crafting fuzzy, jazz-leaning guitar pop that’s inventive enough to shake off any accusations of hipster posturing. Sam Prekop still sings like Bob Dylan two octaves up, and drummer John McEntire maintains the snares-and-cymbals style he employs with his main band, Tortoise.
The Sea and Cake flirt with the idea of a routine, but they’ve never really been motionless. The differences between each new effort of theirs may not be obvious, but close listens reveal a band that’s always been allergic to making the same album twice in a row. Like a child growing in negligible increments every year, they may not initially sound much different in 2012 than they did on 2011’s The Moonlight Butterfly, but a comparison between their present form and that of their outstanding 1995 sophomore album, Nassau, paints two very different pictures of the same group.
Like many of their contemporaries in the second wave of Midwestern post-rock, The Sea and Cake stage a certain resistance to analysis. Hermetic of lyric and title, their musicianship characterised by excellence that stays firmly on the right side of irritating, they’re a group who have processed a range of incongruous sources to produce records which, while sonically accessible for the casual listener, manifest a certain indifference to more sustained interest. Even when displaying melodic intuition the vast majority of less highbrow, more successful indie rock acts would murder for, the music doesn’t seem to attach itself to contexts beyond the tautological, namely the frenetically incestuous Chicago scene emblematised by multi-tasking drummer John McEntire.
The Sea & Cake have become a byword for softly spoken, almost hushed, pop experimentation throughout their twenty year career, arguably most eloquently heralded by their 1994 eponymous debut. Gradually streamlining their sound in the meantime, the band evinced on ‘Runner’, their ninth album, revel in their position as aural comfort food, sandwiched between the mild heat of Yo La Tengo and the impassioned bite of Broken Social Scene. Whereas their previous albums worked notably well as standalone long-players rather than individual tracks, for the new release, mainman Sam Prekop has sacrificed their flow ethic to create ten slick, precise and controlled slices of adult-orientated pop.
A 10th album which suggests the band’s autumn could be a long and productive one. Chris Power 2012 Runner is The Sea and Cake’s 10th album in 18 years, during which time the Chicago band’s guitar-led blend of indie, jazz, Brazilian and African melodic patterns and electronic atmospheres has changed in ways that are very much more about evolution than revolution. If you woke up not knowing if this was 1995 or 2012, hearing the latest Sea and Cake album wouldn’t settle the issue.