Release Date: May 10, 2011
Record label: Thrill Jockey
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Post-Rock
THE SEA AND CAKE play Lee’s Palace on Saturday (November 5). See listing. Rating: NNNN The Sea and Cake's The Moonlight Butterfly opens with Covers, a song so exactly Sea and Cake that you immediately assume you're in for the same old, same old with their ninth album. That same old, same old - John McEntire's hypnotic, rock-steady drumming, Sam Prekop's breathy, charming vocal delivery, Archer Prewitt's clean, jazzy guitar chords - offers the comfortable familiarity of an old flannel shirt from the 90s but leaves you wondering if time has stood still for the Chicago post-rock quartet.
Like many 1990s indie bands, the Sea and Cake made a crucial decision around the end of the decade to get smoother. Not that their early records were ragged things. Not at all. Released when the first generation of lo-fi acts still defined (more or less) the very sound of indie, 1994's self-titled debut and 1995's Nassau and The Biz were mostly gentle and very lush.
The Sea and Cake are one of those long-time bands, a band that doesn’t need left-field turns in their sound or wild reinventions to stay fresh. If they’re not flashy, they are still very much distinct, and though they haven’t always sounded exactly the same, they have always sounded like themselves. The Moonlight Butterfly, the bands new mini-LP, is worth noting because it does two seemingly disconnected things at once.
Sam Prekop has made a career out of keeping listeners at arm’s length. Most recently, there was the case of Old Punch Card, his TMT-approved solo outing, wherein he took a noisy left turn away from pop structure with gratifying, if inscrutable, results. Likewise, his career with The Sea and Cake is difficult to summarize; his lyrics are often maddeningly vague, his vocal delivery hushed and silky smooth, his guitar work proficient but unassuming to the point of near-invisibility.
The Moonlight Butterfly is a half-hour postcard from the Chicago quartet that have become the elder statesman of impressionistic indie rock. The band opt for a direct and straightforward opener (“Covers”), but gradually grow more expansive and dreamy, incorporating electronics from the Kraftwerk playbook on the instrumental title track and stretching out for a beautiful ten-minute epic, “Inn Keeping.” Again recorded by drummer John McEntire at Soma Studios, and produced by the group, chalk up The Moonlight Butterfly as yet another effortlessly charming work from the Sea and Cake. .
The Sea and Cake’s newest mini-album (six songs puts it somewhere between an EP and an LP), The Moonlight Butterfly, opens with a warm deluge of ringing sound, a beat that slides in softly, and murmured vocals reminiscent of the quieter moments had by Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene. But what makes opening track “Covers” so tranquil is the same kind of soothing monotony that ends up burdening the album as a whole. Yes, this is a collection of cerebral songs for the quiet life, the zen garden moments—a leaf changing colors, rippling pond water, a butterfly in the moonlight—but there isn’t enough heart to sustain them, and they end up feeling more like mindlessly riding in an elevator or sitting in a waiting room at the dentist’s office than contemplating life’s big questions.
Although it’s perhaps too late into a 20 or so year existence to expect a radical sonic renaissance for The Sea And Cake, long-term followers have at least been holding out for a little more of the diversity and democracy that made the band a genuine art-pop ‘supergroup’ in the 1990s. Whilst this new 6-song mini-album is still aesthetically sealed inside sleek latter-day Sea And Cake production values, it does finally break more distinctively from the patterns set since 2000’s Oui, after some fleeting outside-the-box flirtations on 2007’s Everybody and 2008’s Car Alarm. By reawakening the foursome’s distinctive yet harmonious individual talents, The Moonlight Butterfly is possibly the most alluring, varied and engaging release from the group since 1997’s The Fawn.