The Sea and Cake
, October 15th, 2012 07:32
Like many of their contemporaries in the second wave of Midwestern post-rock, The Sea and Cake stage a certain resistance to analysis. Hermetic of lyric and title, their musicianship characterised by excellence that stays firmly on the right side of irritating, they’re a group who have processed a range of incongruous sources to produce records which, while sonically accessible for the casual listener, manifest a certain indifference to more sustained interest. Even when displaying melodic intuition the vast majority of less highbrow, more successful indie rock acts would murder for, the music doesn’t seem to attach itself to contexts beyond the tautological, namely the frenetically incestuous Chicago scene emblematised by multi-tasking drummer John McEntire.
Runner, their ninth album proper, continues a recent The Sea and Cake trend by which the almost-showy rhythmic complexity of their early releases is left behind in favour of an attentiveness to melody and texture, but it also adheres to the group’s more longstanding tradition of ducking below a horizon of scrutiny. There’s not much that one can make stick here. Sure, there are influences to spot and, for the die-hards, some instances of astounding technical proficiency to comment on, but it’s very difficult to know how to make any of these songs mean. It’s almost as if they have a transparent pane across them, their potential implications observable but not available to touch-test.
However, this isn’t to Runner’s detriment. First track ‘On and On’ juggles beautifully blurred, hooky riffs with emotional detachment in a way that improves on the stateliness Sonic Youth seemed to have perfected over their last couple of albums. It’s emphatically not a piece of music you’d ever have expected this band to write had you caught them during the course of their jazzy nineties nascence, but is testament to how much a degree of simplification has improved them. Straight on its heels is ‘Harps’, which instantaneously enters the category of songs which might rightfully be described using the overworked epithet ‘yearning’. That it’s impossible to tell what it might be yearning for is, for what it’s worth, a strength.
After the opening brace of songs, both genuinely excellent pieces of educated pop, there’s a subtle shift towards something more in keeping with the reputation of Midwestern bands for cerebral postmodernism. ‘A Mere’ seems to be quoting its unsettling chord structure from the recesses of a head shop’s record collection, although the precise source is anyone’s guess (my tip, for what it’s worth, is Bo Hansson’s insane 1972 Lord of the Rings concept album). Following this, ‘The Invitations’ swells at its midpoint from meandering electronics into a stretched out groove that approximates Neu! but also, and far more intriguingly, the best bits of Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night, those compelling passages of autopilot bass and staccato guitar which forced ecstasy and the blackest despair to run along the same tracks.
McEntire and bassist Eric Claridge resume their Fleetwood & McVie act on ‘New Patterns’, which sets the album back on the right track after the detour of ‘Harbour Bridges’, a piece of acoustic whimsy that feels destined to soundtrack an Apple ad shot in Super-8. The latter is a strange lapse in focus, given that ‘New Patterns’ builds into something with real bite and is succeeded by the similarly spiky ‘Neighbours and Townships’, which is self-assured enough to lift the riff from Joy Division’s ‘Shadowplay’ while maintaining a poker face.
This ability to sew together the inclinations of identifiably disparate musical templates while (just about) retaining sonic coherence and resisting the temptation to ironise its influences makes Runner work. It’s an album which succeeds by virtue of elegance, and which knows a hell of a lot without ever seeming overly knowing. The Sea and Cake have, in the past, struck some as slightly sterile, but the poise and finish of this record deserve praise.