The Sea and Cake are one of those bands that may not seem all that different now from when they started. Their brand of sweet power-pop has been called, often, jazz-like or jazz influenced, but that's mostly because you can't quite pin down what's so different about their sound, and really to pin it to jazz is to miss the myriad influences and cultures that inform the band's sound. And it's that subtle complexity that has kept the band fresh, even as their albums do feel like variations on the same set of themes.
That said, Runner is a different kind of Sea and Cake record. The band has spent its time until now shifting their sound for a particular album -- the electronics on 1997's The Fawn, or the lean crunch of 2008's Car Alarm are two examples -- so that their discography has a surprisingly variety to it. Runner takes those pop explorations and moves through them song to song. The whole album isn't a new genre exercise, or a new twist on the old sounds, but rather each song seems to map out its own path, create its own tangent away from the Sea and Cake wheelhouse. You can draw lines back to last years' mini-LP, The Moonlight Butterfly, with the quiet synth layers here, but you can't say the two albums are cut from the same cloth.
Runner starts with the charged-up "On and On", a song that plays gliding guitar lines off a light-crunch rhythm guitar and John McEntire's propulsive, lean drumming. It's one of a few songs here -- see also "Skyscraper" and "Neighbors and Townships" -- where the band is purely a rock band. There are differences in these songs, "Skyscraper" is both gauzier in its moods than the other two, while "On and On" is a speedy fever dream of swirling guitars and Sam Prekop's breathy vocals. These songs seem to be the foundation for the album, and the other songs build or break completely from this base in fascinating ways.
"Harps" is the most synth-heavy song on the record, awash in pulsing tones -- some of which may be guitars treated to sound like synths -- stretching out over a steady Krautrock beat. "The Invitation" mucks up these synths in more formless squalls of organ-like noise to start the song, but they still form into a danceable beat halfway through with the funkiest bass line and some plinking guitars to cut through the atmosphere. We may have heard these kind of synth moves before from the Sea and Cake but never before have they been so fully formed, and here by mostly keeping live drumming and bass in the mix the songs get astral without sacrifice their earthly rock-band charge.
The most interesting shifts on Runner come in songs that use acoustic guitars, a move rarely used by a band who always seems to shimmer. "A Mere" translates the band's tight pace into something a bit dustier and more thumping, with Archer Prewitt's guitar work going from twanging fills to hazy chord fills over the road-weary acoustic strumming its way through the song. Even more of a departure for the band is "Harbor Bridges", a finger-picked folk tune that feels downright pastoral, a wide-open country shift away from the band's usual metropolitan feel.
That the band tries all these shifts isn't remarkable in its own right, but that they nail each one is what makes Runner an exceptional Sea and Cake record, and if it's not their best since their classic album, Nassau, it is at least the most surprising since then. This is a band built on consistency and despite its disparate moves, Runner is nothing if not consistent, not only in quality but in the way it coheres as a whole. It feels exploratory but not aimless, and by the time we get to the sweet exhaustion of closer "The Runner" you do feel like you've travelled through some world, a world created with playful zeal by these players.