The Sea and Cake

The Moonlight Butterfly

(Thrill Jockey; 2011)

By David M. Goldstein | 3 May 2011

With Luna effectively defunct, there is no longer any competition: the Sea and Cake are the greatest innocuous band in America. I don’t mean to confuse their music with anything bland or boring—Sea and Cake acolytes probably don’t overlap with those of Jack Johnson or Train—but there’s really something reassuring at the heart of the intricate inoffensiveness that serves as their stock in trade. Sure I love me some Fugazi and Mission of Burma as much as the next gnarled hipster, but I can’t stomach those bands on my morning commute. At 8 AM, when caffeine has yet to ignite my senses and I’m anticipating the unmitigated dread of the next ten hours, I require quality music, yet music I can ignore.

In fact, the Sea and Cake are the epitome of the morning commute band, perhaps only great for those who know exactly what I mean. And eight full-length albums, seventeen years removed from their debut, they still traffic in music tailor-made for public transportation and the day spa alike; Sam Prekop breathes sweet nothings at your temples while the mud mask is carefully applied. Which isn’t to imply they aren’t ridiculously skilled and enthusiastic musicians; drummer/producer John McEntire’s gonzo facial expressions and tattoo sleeves bear witness to this reality. But there’s something to be said for a band whose accompanying train ride can’t be experience without falling asleep—which is often exactly what I want.

The Sea and Cake’s albums only rival AC/DC for interchangeability, though subtle differences, mostly contextual, abound: The Fawn (1997) possesses the most electronics, lengthier songs; Nassau (1995) sounds the most like stoned teenagers screwing around in Mom’s basement; Oui (2000) is probably the one you want on your headphones poolside in the Bahamas. If that’s something you want. But the band’s gentle consistency is really something to behold; if you like one, chances are you’ll like them all. (Personally, One Bedroom [2003] was kinda meh, though I can’t exactly remember why.)

The Moonlight Butterfly is their first output since 2008’s nicely revved-up Car Alarm, billed as a “mini-album” as opposed to an EP. And unsurprisingly it works wonders as unobtrusive walking music, ideal for lowering one’s blood pressure while marveling at the attention to detail within John McEntire’s typically immaculate production. Stylistically, Butterfly splits the difference between the live-to-the-floor brio of Alarm or Everybody (2007) and the rangy electro-doodlings of The Fawn. The latter makes up the entirety of the title track, an electronic odyssey that, had they elected to include drums, would resemble, exactly, a remix of New Order’s “Blue Monday.”

Also? Evidence of in-studio “jamming” this time out: “Inn Keeping” works its pleasant guitar + whale noises motif for over ten minutes, and “Lyric” feels like a two-parter designed simply with spontaneity in mind. After completion of Sam Prekop’s verses, the band stretches out on “Lyric”’s second half; here Archer Prewitt provides cascading acoustic patterns over Eric Claridge bass-chugging, which is far more reminiscent of Mike Watt than we’ve come to expect from such a band as the Sea and Cake. And while I’m pretty sure that Prekop uses the word “manatee” (as in the cuddly, hapless, sea creature) in “Up on the North Shore,” as with all of his breathy vocals, it’s impossible to tell without pressing one’s ear right up against the speaker.

With The Moonlight Butterfly, the Sea and Cake are in no danger any time soon of fasting in light of their diet of quality white bread, and it’s not like anybody who is purchasing a “mini-album” from this band expects otherwise. Think of this as more of a minor bone tossed to long time fans; newbies would still do best to get their introduction via The Biz (1995) or The Fawn. The Sea and Cake aren’t exactly challenging themselves here, but a challenge would be unnecessary. Especially when they’ve already won.