True to their name, the Sea and Cake really are as sweet as meringue and as soothing as warm waves breaking over one’s toes. Their 10th album, Runner, offers catchy lullabies underscored with just enough melancholy to confirm it’s the end of summer and finds the band in much the same mood they’ve been in since 1997, crafting fuzzy, jazz-leaning guitar pop that’s inventive enough to shake off any accusations of hipster posturing. Sam Prekop still sings like Bob Dylan two octaves up, and drummer John McEntire maintains the snares-and-cymbals style he employs with his main band, Tortoise.
That isn’t to say the Chicago four piece is out of ideas: The album explores the band’s fascination with jazz without forgetting the sunny beach vibes they’ve become famous for. “A Mere” matches skittery, freeform guitars with Prekop’s ruminations on the breakup of a relationship, while “Harbor Bridges” is 12-string nostalgia for summers long past. “Skyscraper” follows a more orthodox indie-rock route as Prekop attempts a David Bowie howl, pausing only for Archer Prewitt’s fuzzy guitar solos. The band also flirts with minimalism, such as the percussive march of “Pacific” and the languid, reverberating guitar part of the title track.
Other songs, however, fall victim to over-indulgence. Although only half the tracks break the four minute mark, some feel longer and unfocused, and a few of the more experimental ideas quickly grow tiresome. “On and On” is surf rock on lithium, taking the Drums’ beach-party ingredients (drowsy guitars and excited vocals) and stretching them to the point where they no longer feel fun. There’s a similar aimlessness on “New Patterns,” which only settles on a melody after Prewitt has spent 60 seconds tuning up his guitar. And the more complex “Neighbors and Township” is disorientating in a different way, with rigid, tight, post-hardcore-style notes that circle till they lose shape, finally trying to rearrange themselves into a slow country rhythm. But this striving for variety, and the fact the Sea and Cake run with every idea regardless of how soon it tires, is also one of their charms.