The Sea & Cake, "Runner" (Thrill Jockey) -- The Sea & Cake is the sound of 21st-century Chicago. In a metropolis slowly but surely evolving beyond its big-shouldered blues legacy, this artful, deceptively easygoing quartet remains a big tent of influences (plus rich collaborative resumés) while remaining relentlessly consistent; regardless of how they may color their edges, the Sea & Cake always sound like themselves: crisp, clean, humble, utterly modern. Technically, yes, they're post-rock, but without the sonic cubism common to bands usually saddled with that hyphen. "Runner," their ninth full-length (and a swift follow-up to last year's expressive EP, "The Moonlight Butterfly"), is another cool lake breeze -- 10 more songs worthy of careful listening (each player is vital, inextricable, wholly present in the mix) or just as easily employed as zone-out music on the L. Supple grooves, subtle electronics, guitar artistry, singer Sam Prekop's long, sweet sighs -- the city's perfect band.
In concert: The Sea & Cake is scheduled Oct. 29 at City Winery.
Local H, "Hallelujah! I'm a Bum" (Slimstyle) -- Last heard chronicling the "12 Angry Months" (2008) of a break-up, this omnipresent Chicago alt-rock duo (singer-guitarist Scott Lucas and drummer Brian St. Clair) now channels its anger toward matters of politics and social inequities. An ambitious, 17-track double album, "Hallelujah!" addresses numerous issues -- education ("Cold Manor"), homelessness ("Blue Line"), politicians ("They Saved Reagan's Brain") and pundits ("Limit Your Change") -- and raises an alarm that things are not at all copacetic. The pair's stomping grunge rock dominates (and really revs up in thrashers like "Here Come Ol' Laptop" and "Paddy Considine"), though the influence of Lucas' other project with the country-fried Married Men slips into bar ballads like "Look Who's Walking on Four Legs Again." They're all old gripes but well-executed and likely to stand the test of some years.
In concert: Local H kicks off a tour Sept. 18 at the Bottom Lounge.
James Iha, "Look to the Sky" (The End) -- A more muted version of the sunny-day pop he unveiled on his out-of-print 1998 solo debut, "Let It Come Down," the latest from the Smashing Pumpkins' founding guitarist offers just as many easygoing reveries. America's Johnny Marr, Iha has been ping-ponging through disparate projects (Tinted Windows with Taylor Hanson, touring with A Perfect Circle) and shows up with this well-written, beautifully played set as a gentle reminder of his talent. Great modern guitar tones, Iha's dusty croon and numerous sunshower melodies ("Summer Days," "New Year's Day," "4th of July") make every song a holiday.
How to Dress Well, "Total Loss" (Weird World/Acephale) -- Soundcloud's visualized sound wave telegraphs the white-noise conclusion in this album's opening track -- an inevitable blizzard after the song's chilly dub piano and icy R&B falsetto -- as well as the come-down crash in "Say My Name or Say Whatever" and the soulful slow-down in "How Many?" It's OK to look, though; this stuff's nothing if not cinematic. The second full-length from singer-producer Tom Krell, an occasional Chicagoan, conjures more ethereal sounds from the netherworld over which Krell applies his cool coo. It's a one-note gimmick, but when it works (more than half the time) it kills -- and chills.
California Wives, "Art History" (Vagrant) -- Some debut albums self-consciously demand attention. Chicago quartet California Wives laid these 11 breezy tracks before listeners without fanfare. "Art History," indeed -- this is airy, accessible pop that's easy to stand back and regard. They're sketches and sound paintings of the band's new wave, guitars-and-synths influences, old and new. Singer Jayson Kramer is dry and deadpan, very much like the Sea & Cake's Sam Prekop; the band isn't as intricate and daring, but there's real beauty in their New Order simplicity and M83 widescreen view.
The Hood Internet, "Feat" (Decon) -- Chicago DJ duo the Hood Internet's rep as party meisters earned national acclaim for their manic mash-ups of hip-hop and indie rock. Which makes the overall downbeat tone of this first album of purely original material (due Oct. 2) all the more surprising. Even a song called "More Fun" leans minor-key and moody. Crowded with guest vocalists -- most tracks pair a rapper with a rocker, like Donwill with My Gold Mask on "Do You Give Up Now," A.C. Newman with Sims on "One for the Record Books" and the great BBU with Annie Hart on the album's greatest and liveliest feat, "Won't F--- Us Over" -- the duo's underlying music is ruminative and introspective. They've definitely stopped the fancy footwork.
In concert: Try the music live when the Hood Internet headlines the Metro on Nov. 2 (the previous Sept. 20 date was postponed).