My favorite songs by The Sea and Cake are full of light and air, space and slow currents of faint emotion. They make me want to drive along the coast, somewhere, anywhere, not that they trade in the beachside California ambience aimed at by so many recordings of the past few years. The Sea and Cake’s is a mild meeting between water and land, a clear day and lakes, seas or oceans smooth as glass stretching away from the roadside into the distance. They’ve never made an entire album that feels like this the whole way through though, not that they were trying to.
Their latest, Runner, is meant to be something of a companion piece to last year’s The Moonlight Butterfly, on which the band experimented more than usual with composing by synthesizer, as on the title track, a piece without vocals, spun around synthesizer arpeggios, signal-like chiming, and a thin floor of pale blue-gray electronic fog. But while the way in which Moonlight Butterfly and Runner were produced may have felt different to the band, the results, in both cases, are unmistakably part of The Sea and Cake’s long and remarkably consistent history. Nevertheless, Sam Prekop, Archer Prewitt and John McEntire finding new ways of working together may well be partially responsible for the energy of Runner, the lightness it accrues crossing from one well-fashioned recording to the next.
“Harps” is the song on Runner most likely to worm its way through your ears and into the core of your brain, glistening, effortlessly conjuring a sense of sedated daydreaming, being in motion, peering blankly through a pane of glass. A touch of sadness is drowned out in pools of possibility, even if the summer failed to appear because the sky was never blue. The vocals don’t arrive until a minute and a half in, but by then, built on a steady, motorik backbone, flickering feedbacks of ambience, and a squishy synthesizer pulse, it’s already begun to cast its warm spell of color and movement. “Invitations” shows most clearly the signs of experimentation. It comprises two halves: warm, pulsing electronic textures envelop Prekop’s musing vocals, then the voices of children filter into the mix, then come the drums and a soft but grooving guitar figure, pedaling us off toward a distant horizon.
As always, Sam Prekop’s voice is breathy but resolute throughout, at once expressive of vulnerability and resilience. On “Harbor Bridges,” it sounds a note of respite along the course of an acoustic guitar’s changing chords, amidst elegantly surging washes of synthesizer, and on more upbeat tracks like “On and On” and “Pacific,” Prekop’s calm creates a sense of levity and stillness in the constant forward rush of guitar and drums. “New Patterns” is another favorite here, mellowed out and meditative, Prewitt’s lead guitar lines uncoiling like tense little trails of rumination before the song begins to breathe and expand, opening onto other, bigger landscapes.
It’s great to hear a band that has been doing something so well for so long do just enough differently to refocus your attention, not so much that you lose sight of what has always attracted you to their sound. This is, of course, not one of the easier tricks to pull off. The Sea and Cake make it sound simple. “Runner” is one of their richest records, one that makes clear the continuing strength of their particular vision of an atmospheric and propulsive sort of rock music, the value of which comes nowhere near being obliterated by the continual turning of passing trends.
Stream: The Sea and Cake – “Harps”