The Sea and Cake have long been one of the hidden treasures of the indie rock world. We could map out the potential reasons why they are somehow not as revered as peers like Yo La Tengo or contemporaries such as Tortoise, which shares drummer John McEntire with this ensemble. But that would only draw further focus away from Any Day, their 11th studio album and another sparkling clean and sturdy entry into an already spotless discography.
What should be addressed at the jump is what is missing from this recording, namely the bass playing of long time member Eric Claridge who left the band after the tour in support of their last album (2012’s Runner). It seems such a simple role to fill, and one that McEntire took too well in addition to his percussive duties. The absence, though, is glaring. Claridge was a vital counterpoint to the interwoven guitar parts of Sam Prekop and Archer Prewitt, with a crisp melodicism that balanced its dual roles as a lead and a rhythm instrument. McEntire prefers to sit firmly in the pocket and not draw too much attention. A democratic turn, and one that filters out a vital element to the group’s signature sound.
The positive side to McEntire’s quiet foundation is that it pushes everyone else into the spotlight. The right amount of attention can now be given to Prekop’s prenatural skill with a melody and Prewitt’s copious guitar abilities. While the former spends many of his off-hours dabbling in modular synth compositions and photography, he has clearly used his time to continue his study into the work of Tropicalia artists like Jorge Ben and Caetano Veloso, as well as the American pop standards of the ‘60s. If he were making music back then, Prekop would currently be revered today as a Bacharach-style genius. His hooks feel so simple and engaging, masking their complexity. He floats in and around the mekanik beat of “Starling” like a firefly, and plays with the jazzy bounce of the title track, combining two or three already perfect lines into an almost freeform mega-melody. They are the kind of hooks you find yourself leaning forward in anticipation.
Prewitt’s guitar work takes on similarly unexpected and welcome shapes. He has a lot to contend with in each song between Prekop’s rhythm work and the touches of synthesizer that float into the mix. But he continues to distinguish himself, adding Robert Fripp-style leads to the peppy “Day Moon” and a sackful of jazz filigrees throughout that manage to cut through even in their understated grace.
It’s a weird thing to say but the Sea and Cake’s consistency may be their undoing. For a band that has been around for nearly a quarter century, there hasn’t been that much evolution in their sound even as they’ve augmented the traditional two guitars, bass and drums core with keyboards, programmed drums and strings. They do a lot with their limited palette of colors (Prekop’s vocal range finds an impressive bounty within its narrow scope), but it seems a tad stubborn. I wouldn’t expect them to try and meet the timbre of the times with trap beats or some strange EDM incursions. It’s the pleasant sameness of it that makes me both excited to hear a new Sea & Cake release and a little disappointed that, considering the work that its membership does outside this fold, there’s not more there.