Sam Prekop has made a career out of keeping listeners at arm’s length. Most recently, there was the case of Old Punch Card, his TMT-approved solo outing, wherein he took a noisy left turn away from pop structure with gratifying, if inscrutable, results. Likewise, his career with The Sea and Cake is difficult to summarize; his lyrics are often maddeningly vague, his vocal delivery hushed and silky smooth, his guitar work proficient but unassuming to the point of near-invisibility. If Prekop’s music were a person, it would be that guy standing coolly but shyly in the corner, speaking to no one yet quietly, totally aware.
Aware, but not assured. The Moonlight Butterfly, the longstanding Chicago group’s new “mini-LP,” is a study in lyrical vacillation. For as difficult as Prekop’s words are to decipher — and they are so — he seems to be treading water in an ocean of uncertainty. In “Up on the North Shore,” he laments, “No concentration/ How will I ever know?” In “Lyric,” he wonders if he can “Outlast the melody/ I don’t even know.” Maybe Prekop is wrestling with the dueling directions of his music. Maybe he’s working through some hairy psychological shit. Or maybe, I guess, he really just doesn’t know anything.
Thankfully, the other members of The Sea and Cake are there to fish Prekop out of the deep. Besides multifaceted songsmith Archer Prewitt, there’s drummer John McEntire, who moonlights (ahem) in the metrically dense Tortoise but is, with S&C, a motorik madman; on “Covers,” you can practically hear fat beads of sweat dripping off his brow. McEntire and bassist Eric Claridge lock into some pretty hefty interplay here, especially on the album’s first two tracks, both of which feature bold, brilliant grooves. “Why,” I wondered aloud, “isn’t The Sea and Cake more popular with the jam-seekers, the outdoor festival-goers, the dread-ed, hacky-sacky masses?”
Butterfly’s title track serves as a partial response to that question, as Prekop wanders back behind his synth rack for four minutes of cosmic bloops and blurps. It’s a supreme track, stratospheric on headphones, a shockingly pop-balanced blend of vintage Kraftwerk electro and contemporary Emeralds-style drone. Fittingly, it’s far more pop-structured than anything on Old Punch Card. Set break’s over with “Up On the North Shore,” a classic mid-tempo S&C jam that would fit right in on the band’s excellent Oui LP.
Per the majority of The Sea and Cake catalog, Butterfly is roundly solid: not great, but very good, with frequent moments of luminosity. Take “Inn Keeping,” Butterfly’s showpiece and an unflinching exercise in equilibrium, featuring a steady mix of drum machine and live drums, synth-bass and bass guitar, meticulously-placed vocals and oodles of pregnant space. It’s one of the group’s more captivating tunes in a good while and, at 10-plus minutes, also one of its most unhurried. Still, for his part, Prekop remains unsure. “Again, I never know,” he croons, a continual caution to any listeners seeking answers: There ain’t none here.