The Sea and Cake are one of those long-time bands, a band that doesn’t need left-field turns in their sound or wild reinventions to stay fresh. If they’re not flashy, they are still very much distinct, and though they haven’t always sounded exactly the same, they have always sounded like themselves.
The Moonlight Butterfly, the bands new mini-LP, is worth noting because it does two seemingly disconnected things at once. First, it represents the bands quiet expansion over time, a representation of their strengths and a stretching of the borders of their sound. At the same time, though, it feels like a brief history of the band, a cross section of the phases it’s gone through over the years. Mostly notably, it’s emphasis on synthesizers and programming hints at the soft electronics the band ventured into on records like The Fawn and One Bedroom.
The time since that, though, has seen the Sea and Cake turn into a compact and volatile band on the tight bliss of Everybody and the slight rock edge of 2009’s Car Alarm. Their recent, more direct approach shows up most clearly on the hushed power of “Up on the North Shore”. Sam Prekop’s whispery vocals drift over the understated guitars, which are always more intricate than they first appear, but it’s John McEntire’s drumming that pushes the song beautifully forward. Opener “Covers” represents a similar corner of the band’s sound, charging forward even as guitar tones melt at their edges, even as Prekop’s most urgent singing is still soft and confessional.
The Moonlight Butterfly breaks from their recent work, though, with a shadowy side. It’s got moments moodier than we’ve heard from the band in a while, and the shift is an effective and welcome one. “Monday” would be spacious and buoyant, driven by bright acoustic fills, if the keys didn’t fill the song out with a foggy heft. “Lyrics” weaves moaning guitar phrasings with haunting analog synths — an instrument Prekop has focused on in solo work recently — and the mix is the thickest, most brooding sound on the record. It’s dark, but never too dark, Prekop always pulling it out of the mire into something more bittersweet with his airy delivery.
The two songs that standout here, for different reasons, are the title track and “Inn Keeping”. “The Moonlight Butterfly” deals in upsetting our expectations, since a song named after a natural image is all unnatural electronics. It’s an all-instrumental synth-fest, as carefully layered as the band’s guitar-based work, but it’s also distracting. Where synths work their way quietly through other songs, here they feel too heavy swarming on their own. This feeling only intensifies when you pit it against the epic and beautiful “Inn Keeping”. The song clocks in at over 10 minutes, and meshes Prekop’s programming side with the band’s impressive strengths. In one way, the song shows us what we already knew: The Sea and Cake have a sound with plenty of legs. In another way, though, it shows this in a whole new way. The song stretches out and churns insistently. The synths and guitars play off of each other again, but there’s a restraint that pulls the song forward. Even as synthesizers start to grind away in the song’s impressive space, and the guitars respond in kind with gentle squalls of feedback, the song never erupts. It just smolders consistently for the entire running time. It’s an ambitious new step for the band, somewhere in between the shapeless beauty of ambient music and the sharp immediacy of their own pop leanings.
That song, perhaps more than the others here, shows just how the Sea and Cake both remind us of their past and hint at their future on The Moonlight Butterfly. Even the single misstep here is a move forward, not one of stagnation. The band, 20 years on, sounds as energized as ever, and “Inn Keeping” is the band’s best, most resonant work since their classic Nassau. It’s one thing to keep making good music; it’s another thing to maintain your sound without repeating yourself. The Sea and Cake continue to prove they can do both, and this mini-LP is another fresh take on the lush pop landscape they inhabit all on their own.