Chicago’s The Sea and Cake have been on hiatus since 2004, but they’ve got a new release in Everybody, and on it, their indie-rock take on ’70s easy-listening is at its best. The Me Decade’s soft rock and smooth jazz is probably not the first place one would look for inspiration for an alternative sound, but The Sea and Cake have been doing it since 1994. They’ve gone some different directions, from the electronic beats of their last album, 2003’s One Bedroom, to its ultra-mellow predecessor, 2000’s Oui, but with Everybody, the band has taken the finest bits of all those journeys and put them all together.
Probably the best overall piece of the puzzle on Everybody is the excellently formed tempo. It’s fast enough to keep the songs from sliding into alt-Kenny G ‘cool vibes’, but slow enough that it’s not some pale dance-tronica. Instead, The Sea and Cake’s rhythms operate in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of being just right, and the vocals and guitars match this trail of beats. This is maybe most clear on the record’s opener, “Up On Crutches”, which finds a sweet spot between indie- and -tronica (reminiscent of Pinback’s wonderful single, “Fortress”). There are alternative takes on this angle, like the more pressing, distorted “Crossing Line”, and the airy, somewhat darker “Exact To Me”, and while they may not quite equal “Crutches” in quality, they are still able to stand tall on their own right.
But what The Sea and Cake’s rhythm does best is not so much dominate a song, but add a clever spine to the more smooth jazz numbers on Everybody. The literal ‘easy listening’ aspect of easy listening is married to a rhythmic, but not overbearing, beat in all the instrumentation, including vocals. This effortless, confident style, wry but not jaded, can be heard most clearly on “Lightning”, as well as the slightly more hopeful “Introducing”, and the slightly more downbeat “Middlenight”. Some other numbers, like “Too Strong” and finisher “Transparent”, may not put it all together quite as well, but they never leave a bad taste in the mouth.
Special mention should also be given to the two tracks on Everybody that see The Sea and Cake venture most outside their comfort zone, “Coconut” and “Left On”. “Coconut” takes that winning beat and puts it together with not only some airy, atmospheric tones, but also an absolutely catch chorus, while “Left On” puts the beat in league with an impressive, encompassing post-rock sound. If this is where The Sea and Cake range farther, “Coconut” takes Everybody to the Gaullist grooves of French electronic synth-smiths Air, while “Left On” hooks the band into the autobahn excesses of kraut-rock, like Neu’s “Hallogallo”.
The Sea and Cake may not be the only people out there in the indie-sphere looking to the softer sounds of the seventies for guidance (fellow Second City-ites The Autumn Defense – QRO album review – also come to mind), but they got to be only one of a handful. After a record like Everybody, one might start to wonder why. Yes, everyone and their uncle can deride the sonic stylings of easy listening ‘musak’, but they don’t call it ‘easy listening’ because it hurts when heard. With Everybody, The Sea and Cake have finally gotten the best out of a much-loathed, yet much-accepted, genre of music, and given it just the right indie rock time.