Here's something that isn't easy to do politely: tell a band who've made five fine albumsand whose members have made quite a few more with different (and sometimes the same) bandmatesthat their sixth doesn't do much in the way of progression; that it's nice and all, but couldn't they have added a rapper or a DJ or something, or taken a crack at the Merle Haggard songbook, or hired ?uestlove to come down and tap a snare drum for a minute?
THE SEA AND CAKE CALIFONE Showbox, 206-628-3151, $15 9 p.m. Tues., March 11
"A decent portion of the early press has mentioned the consistency as being a problem," Archer Prewitt, guitarist with sleek Chicago post-rockers the Sea and Cake, says of his group's new CD when I put the above to him. "I personally don't believe that one needs to take a real extreme tack as a reaction against your last album, or to appease a listening crowd. I think it's more important to serve the music in the way that seems right for the music."
And so you should, Archer. After all, change for change's sake has rewarded us with Madonna's crack at Evita and Neil Young's Trans, while those diehards the Ramones managed to spin three chords into like 300 albums that only really started to suck at the end. But Prewitt's philosophy gets complicated on One Bedroom, the Sea and Cake's latest Thrill Jockey disc. A collection of coolly melodic, technologically sophisticated pop songs, it's as inviting a listen as you're likely to find this winter: Singer Sam Prekop's breathy coo wraps around your ears like cotton, Prewitt's silvery jangle shimmers with Club Med warmth, bassist Eric Claridge lays down lines as enveloping as a down comforter, and drummer John McEntire replicates your heartbeat on his trap kit and with an arsenal of digital clicks and flutters. As an exercise in mood, as a display of instrumental prowess, as something great to hear while you're sipping a Sprite, it's nearly flawless.
Thing is, though, it's the same collection of coolly melodic, technologically sophisticated pop songs the band's been making since the early '90s, when Prekop and Claridge, fresh from the breakup of their bizarre art-funk outfit Shrimp Boat, teamed up with ex-Coctail Prewitt and Tortoise member McEntire to indulge their collective fascination with what a friend rightly calls "vacation rock." Play it next to 2000's Oui and tell the difference, and I'll give you 10 bucks.
"I feel like this one is quite a bit different in terms of tempo and the feel of the songs," Claridge objects (though he's exempt from the 10 bucks thing). "It seems like it's quite a bit darker than Oui, which was a very consistent and very sweet record."
Perhaps. Bedroom does dim the lights a shade, exchanging some of the Jimmy-Buffett-as-an-astronaut bonhomie for a sort of Krautrock-derived fixation on forward momentum. Each song moves with a sense of purpose that you'd be exaggerating if you called urgency, but that sharpens the band's attack nonetheless. And the deliciously random cover of David Bowie's "Sound and Vision" that closes the albumwith ace vocal support from the Aluminum Group's Frank and John Navin, no lessis a true departure, a giddy pop-art confection that almost trips over its own enthusiasm. (Claridge says, too, that a forthcoming follow-up EP titled Glass mixes things up further, pointing to a bare-bones approach to songwriting and an accelerated recording schedule.)
But that's all mountain/molehill stuff. The real question One Bedroom begs is why we as listeners put such a premium on constant evolution from our musicians, when often the machine's not broken and not in need of any real fixing. The Sea and Cake have hit upon a winning formula, one they relish toying with and one that yields satisfying, if predictable, results. Can't we just sit back and enjoy it instead of worrying about what could be?
"We certainly are not sitting back thinking, slow and steady wins the race," Claridge laughs when I get a little close to sketching a picture of grandfatherly contentment. "But I don't think anyone in the band is even close to being an ego-driven musician. Everybody gets along so well, so the way the music flows is pretty natural."
"A lot of what makes the Sea and Cake's sound are these four individuals that have understated personalities," Prewitt adds. "There's not really the need for us to present something bombastic, either stylistically or sonically. I think we take chances, I just don't think they present themselves in a garish way." How polite.