The ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach is rightly seen as lazy, and most bands who have had a career as long as The Sea And Cake’s would strive to change things up every now and then. At the same time, though, gradual progression usually works better than constant reinvention, and bands who always make a conscious effort to move their sound into different styles and out of their comfort zone will overreach themselves if they don’t remain aware of what they are doing at all times.
The Sea And Cake have been doing their thing since 1994 (aside from a three-year hiatus from 2004-2007), combining elements of jazz, post-rock and straightforward indie rock to produce output that has remained consistent. It’s quite an achievement for them not to have made a serious mis-step in a career spanning almost 20 years, and in that respect, their 10th full-length album is more of the same.
That’s not a criticism. Plenty of bands of this ilk would do terrible things to have a track record as accomplished as The Sea And Cake’s, and since coming off hiatus in 2007, they’ve been in a rich vein of form. They return with the weight of expectation on their shoulders, having delivered one of their most impressive works in the form of 2011′s The Midnight Butterfly. It took them only 16 months to produce the follow-up. By modern standards, at least in this genre, that’s quite a turnaround. That speedy delivery might worry some, but while Runner doesn’t quite hit the heights that its predecessor did, it’s more of The Sea And Cake doing what they do best, and what’s not to like about that?
The album gets off to a flyer with the up-tempo, hook-filled On And On getting things underway with the kind of confidence we’ve come to expect from them. Harps adds some electro-pop flourishes into the mix, while Skyscraper sounds as big as its title suggests. What’s surprising is how effortless this all sounds – sure, the quartet make no real effort to push themselves, but those gradual progressions are everywhere on the album, manifesting themselves in subtle ways that take repeated listens to fully understand.
This is most noticeable on the album’s back half, with those post-rock influences becoming more prominent on New Patterns, and the charming acoustic pop of Harbor Bridges (containing one of the best choruses on the album) is a delight. After so long in the business, they still possess the ability to produce brilliant material. Pacific is the album’s penultimate track, and is arguably the most immediate song on the record, which, by this band’s standards, is saying something. Admittedly, not everything hits the mark; The Invitations seems to float by on initial listens without really affecting the listener one way or the other, and even after the rest of the album has fallen into place, the part-instrumental song makes for a nice change of pace, sandwiched in between two busier numbers.
Overall, the best thing that can be said about The Sea And Cake’s new stuff is that, by and large, it sounds like the old stuff. It’s still working for the band, and you don’t hear us complaining.