The Sea and Cake
[Thrill Jockey; 2018]
Alhough Any Day seems like an apt opportunity for a bit of a retrospective, that might be tempting fate too much. The Sea and Cake, like their label, have endured a lot of years, and it’s a wonder that they haven’t gone nuts trying to change with them. While there has been subtle variation, their music has stayed more or less the same through all of it. Maybe the fact that each member has projects separate from the group has helped its balmy sound remain intact. It would be both a hoot and a tribute to parody their sound at this point, but they remain what gets called a “well-kept secret” (always found this a generally off notion). Perhaps they are, to be crass, second-tier adult contempo alt. Somebody Wilco might bring on tour to be chattered over. The jazz aspect is creamy light (is there coffee in there or what?), the synths are unobtrusive little helper sprites providing a bubblebath effervescence, and Prekop’s vocals are all air puft sighs and coos. Theirs is a pillowy, pillowy sound, and album to album, it just kinda gets re-fluffed.
But all snarking aside, the band is one solid musical identity in a realm of many, and it’s hard to blame them for sticking to a formula of precision tenderness that has never stopped working. They are an expertly mixed poultice for our skin, thick or thin, for a harsh world that doesn’t let up until it does. Then there’s that silence. Perhaps that’s where the intrigue lies with this music. It seems to be preoccupied with the quiet interval vs. the extended idyll. It prizes the rudderless reflection that comes over one when calm arrives like a muted electric shock, utterly unexpected. This ambiguous transitional wellness is hemmed by both uncertainty and raw sensory rush, both of which come through The Sea and Cake’s songs. They’re meditative, but not too deeply, as McEntire’s lively, often metronomic drumming reminds us we’ve got shit to do. Another curious aspect is Prekop’s out-of-context conversational lyrics. They frustrate their own reams of opaque ambiguity with emotings, however noncommittal. The effect is something like a less overtly cynical, breezier version of Radiohead’s “Fitter, Happier” automaton.
These curious elements have held together, but approaching Any Day, this reviewer has to reckon with falling off after 2007’s , Everybody. They were already getting slicker and poppier two albums back from then, but there was an ennui setting in with that feel. It wasn’t necessarily a return to those moodier, noisier first three albums that was longed for, but there was an underlying coasting sensation to the songs, and they began to melt together a bit. Upon now revisiting these last five albums, this feels less true. With signature consistency comes the potential of a sort of oversaturation. A very similar thing happened with Stereolab’s output shift, where they turned down their raucous krautrock buzz and put a crisp, synth-swarmed brightness in its place (perhaps new producer John McEntire had a hand in this, as he approached S&C’s initial dramatic stylistic shift, The Fawn). Time has shown both phases of each band to be equally valid, where this listener’s recurring moodiness absent mindedly laid down preference as discernment. They didn’t lose their edge. Doesn’t seem they were ever all that preoccupied with being “edgy” to begin with. They just gradually moved through approaches as it suited them, while fans checked in and reacted with wherever they were at when they left off.
While not-to-be-underestimated bassist Eric Claridge is no longer in the picture, Nick Macri (Euphone, C-Clamp) fills in nicely on album #11. And there is, as promised, a lot less synthetic texture. The sound is closer to that of the transitional Oui-to-One Bedroom phase. That is, save the somewhat stultifying “Starling” — the two opening tracks and “Day Moon” split the rock-chamber pop difference much more satisfyingly than this song, which is reminiscent of skippable tracks from the last four. The musicianship is unimpeachable, of course, but “Starling” feels rote and its pseudo-anthemic chorus melodically banal (lovely little intro, though). Luckily, the song is surrounded by winning examples of the band at their most irresistibly, toe-tappingly lush. Previewing the closer and title track was definitely putting their best feet forward. These songs fill you with a warm, golden sensation akin to that of “Transparent” or “Props of Upper Class.” It was nice to hear one thing that I’d always enjoyed come back: the resident instrumental. “Paper Window” may be no “A Man Who Never Sees a Pretty Girl That He Doesn’t Love Her a Little” (incidentally it’s actually somewhat stylistically closer to Oui’s “You Beautiful Bastard”), but it provides a lovely little “Albatross”-style interlude that exudes a similar sense of delicate stillness.
Any day now, the bottom’s just gonna drop out. Humanity and overwhelm go hand in hand. It’s tough to just breathe sometimes. The relentless blessing/curse dichotomy of consciousness needs stabilizers to work out just what sentiment is sensible for operations ostensibly simple to Sisyphean. In this space, The Sea and Cake continue to be champions for the weary and resolute alike, being both the soothing reassurance of beauty and the wistful resolve that the most dogged absolute is the very impermanence of everything. It’s a deceptively tricky feat and one that they continue to thrive on.