The Sea and Cake has been at it for 20 years. In that time they’ve managed to create an arsenal of fantastic and progressive jazz-pop records. What’s interesting is that their body of work actually resembles very little compared to what we experience as day-to-day music fans. You don’t hear new acts name-checking The Sea and Cake as an influence. Probably because it requires a great deal of physical skill, knowledge of instruments and the ability to connect with like-minded musicians who have spent years studying the craft as a way of life, which is obviously not required in today’s over-celebrated bedroom pop studio. It’s something we need a lot more of.
That not only makes The Sea and Cake more original, which the quartet has consistently achieved in their recordings, but it also keeps longtime fans engaged. For the younger generation who are new to indie music, this new six-song album represents a perfect opportunity to get acquainted with the band as The Moonlight Butterfly encompasses a lot of their best work plus a few new twists and angles. And, by the way, percussionist/producer John McEntire also happens to hit the skins for Tortoise, which makes him extra sexy.
The Moonlight Butterfly lives in close proximity to 1997’s The Fawn, easily one of the best indie rock/pop albums to come out of that decade. This six-song release is bright and refreshing throughout – almost youthful in its execution for a bunch of dudes hitting middle age. Opening track “Covers” encapsulates that period in time when indie music felt very new and exciting with driving drum patterns, speedy chord progressions and Sam Prekop’s smoky vocal delivery – the guy always sounds like he’s had at least a few Bourbons before stepping up to the mic. The song is very repetitive but it moves rather quickly, and few bands sound this distinct and warm in the first ten seconds of a verse. “Lyric” features a bit of experimentation by pairing nimble guitar picking and John McEntire’s shuffling rhythms against reverse-reverb effects that waver in and out. The band exercise more of their electronic persona on title track “The Moonlight Butterfly”: textured synths and precise patterns loop into a unique instrumental jam of sorts, unexpected and trippy (this is the part where I deliberately avoid any Krautrock references). The remaining three songs, “Up On The North Shore”, “Inn Keeping” and “Monday” each share personalities that recall so much of what makes The Fawn (see “Sporting Life” and “The Ravine”) so essential; intricate guitar work, jazz/bossa nova-inspired rhythms and Prekop’s soulful tone. It’s almost surprising to hear them at this stage in their career sounding so relevant and necessary, but then again we’re still talking about The Sea and Cake.
One thing I’ve grown to appreciate more and more are the artists that carve a stylistic and unique niche — not necessarily needing or trying to take things in different directions for the sake of proving to people that the idea of “progressing” equates to making music that’s radically different or an essential career step. That rarely works, and I’m not sure you could convince me that the desire to challenge fans always brings out the strengths and emotions that drew people to the music in the first place. The Sea and Cake is a great example of an act that’s avoided those pitfalls by developing a musical persona that is impervious to fads or any expectation. No strategy, just quality control. words/ s mcdonald
MP3: The Sea and Cake :: Up On The North Shore