It may sound like a back-handed compliment, but there’s a lot to be said for dependability. In music, as in life, there is a fine line between feeling comfortable and feeling bored, so a band like The Sea & Cake – the Chicago quartet whose line-up, label and sound have remained unchanged for the best part of two decades – is a rare thing indeed. Born from ideas first explored during the recording of last year’s The Moonlight Butterfly, the songs on Runner (album number ten from the group, released – as ever – in conjunction with the Thrill Jockey label) started off as synth experiments in Sam Prekop’s home studio before being toyed with and fleshed out by bandmates Archer Prewitt, Eric Claridge and John McEntire, who mixed the album at his Soma Studios; but whilst writing and recording was a more disjointed process than usual Runner is perhaps the group’s strongest, most cohesive effort to date. Advance singles “On & On” and “Harps” (below) form a memorable opening salvo, the former’s propulsive 4/4 drums pulling away from droning, E-bowed guitars whilst the latter finds Prekop’s breathy vocals mirrored by shimmering synth textures and interlocking keyboard motifs over a lazy disco beat; elsewhere tracks like “Pacific”, “Skyscraper” and “Neighbors & Township” offer a slightly tougher take on the band’s trademark jazz-pop – a little fuzz on the guitars, harder drums, minor-key melodies – while “A Mere” and the gorgeous, plainitive “Harbor Bridges” display a down-home earthiness that extends beyond their acoustic guitars and country-folk twang. Throughout, Prekop’s voice is as smooth and inviting as chocolate wrapped in silk, his six-string interactions with Prewitt as sympathetic as identical twins, whilst Claridge and McEntire’s rhythmic pulse is as regular and relaxing as the purr of the family cat, and when they decide to stretch their legs – locking into a groove on the Krautrocking “New Patterns” (a close cousin to Wilco’s “Kidsmoke”) or “The Invitations”‘ extended percussive coda, drifting in slow motion through the title track’s glacial ambience – the effect is akin to cruising down the highway on a hot day in the air-conditioned comfort and safety of an expensive German car. These are performances that reflect the 18 years these four forty-something men have spent playing together and the pleasure they clearly take in a job well done; safe, solid and fine-tuned with the precision of structural engineers. Admittedly not words one would normally associate with pop music’s endless pursuit of the new and exciting, but sometimes – like a Sunday morning in bed with a warm drink – only comfort and familiarity will do and, as Runner proves, The Sea & Cake are one group you can always rely on.
Runner is out September 17 via Thrill Jockey, and is streaming in full right now over at Drowned In Sound.