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.
Runner, their tenth full-length, is an album that lives and dies by its prime cuts, which unfortunately occupy the minority of it. It’s only a couple great songs away from bland redundancy, but it’s these sparse moments – where everything clicks — that would motivate a band to keep trying new things after almost 20 years together. They may revert to old habits more often than risk making new ones, but if they can still strike gold here and there amid all the pleasant consistency, then it’s worth it.
Runner is worth it. Aesthetically, it’s one of the band’s most synthetic albums, continuing along a path they started on near the turn of the century. Frontman Sam Prekop wrote these songs around synth and sequencer parts as opposed to guitar: a tactic that yields the ridiculously inviting lead single “Harps”, which is not only the best song on here by far but arguably the best of any release in this heavily stacked September week. “That melody and structure [of “Harps”] could not have happened if I hadn’t played off the sequencer right at the beginning,” he said recently. “Having the pieces start in my home studio, I became quite cavalier with them, painting with a new fat sloppy brush.”
Prekop’s brush manages few other new and interesting strokes for his band – “The Invitations” is another electronically anchored highlight that shape-shifts from ambient to disco – but nothing else on Runner can touch “Harps”. Given their age, it’s tough to see The Sea and Cake deviating too far from their proven techniques, based in technical precision and the obsessive production and always-crisp drumming of John McEntire, or taking any risks radical enough to make things really interesting in the future. But if Runner is to stand for something, it’s that The Sea and Cake are still delivering, and even after so many years, they’re not yet re-gifting.
Essential Tracks: “Harps”, “The Invitations”, and “Harbor Bridges”