It should be a pretty significant occasion when the four members of the Sea and Cake enter the studio, which they do on average once every four or five years. After all, both as a band and as solo artists, these musicians form the bedrock of Chicago's post-rock scene, with connections to groups such as the Coctails (featuring Sea and Cake guitarist/vocalist Archer Prewitt), Shrimp Boat (featuring Sam Prekop and Eric Claridge), and that other Chicago post-rock group Tortoise (co-founded by drummer John McEntire).
However, the music they make together is so low-key — and the post-rock movement so past its heyday — that a new Sea and Cake album can pass by unnoticed. Despite breaking with their recent trend of plain white backgrounds and no-frills cardboard packaging (this new one even comes with a booklet), the band's seventh album, Everybody, is predictably hushed and underplayed, with all the jazzy breezes of brushed snare and lazy-Sunday vocals we've come to expect. There are occasional variations, like the genuine pop hook that anchors the opening "Up on Crutches," the Afropop-inspired guitar theme on "Exact to Me," or the Krautrock grooves on the slow-building instrumental "Left On." But each song seems to inhabit the same musical space — not just with others on this album, but with every Sea and Cake song ever made.
It's tempting to label Everybody as overly repetitive — talented musicians running in place — but to an extent that seems to be the point of their minimalism, which works adequately from song to song and even better from measure to measure or moment to moment. It's also tempting to call the band's songs "background music" (as I have done in this very publication), but that would ignore the band's carefully calibrated dynamics, the deceptively casual blend of styles and sounds, and the intricate interplay of the instruments, which click together to sound alternately organic and mechanical.
So, in a sense, the Sea and Cake warrant some of the same complaints typically leveled at guitarists like Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai, whose heightened technical proficiency leaves almost no room in their music for specific meaning or emotion. There's more artistry in the Sea and Cake's blankness, but Everybody, like all the band's albums, sounds like a white canvas hanging in a white gallery: There's so little there that you can read into it anything you want. The Sea and Cake revel in such potentially intriguing ambiguity. — Stephen Deusner
The Sea and Cake play Young Avenue Deli Tuesday, September 18th, with Meg Baird. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15.