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Audio Reviews
Red Version
by The Speed of Sound in Seawater
(self-released) (2010)
Red Version
As we are ever so quickly nearing the close of 2010, I have begun, as most habitual critics do, to reflect upon the past year in music. And, in doing so, I have noticed a disturbing trend.

Not with what I have been hearing, per se; no particular genre or artist has struck me as being emblematic of the year thus far, nor has anything been especially disconcerting or wholly out-of-character from an aesthetic standpoint. Rather, it’s been a matter of how I have been listening to music.

Which is to say: digitally.

To be honest, this is hardly a huge leap from previous years, especially since I have been steadily building a Winamp- and iTunes-curated MP3 library for nearly a decade now, with a portable player of some sort being part of the package since 2004. Even so, and notwithstanding the early Naughties and their rush of quasi-legal/not-yet-prosecuted file-sharing, the vast majority of this digital collection has been ripped directly from the hundreds of CDs, LPs, EPs, 7-inches and 45s which I have continued to acquire over the years. Albums and singles which currently reside, in places of quiet honour, on shelves and in crates in my home.

Some would call it clutter; I prefer to think of it as a Hornby-esque coterie of associative-autobiographical trophies, totems, and touchstones—albums that have helped to form me, just as my own memories and experiences suffuse and inform them.

You see, I am a collector, and the act of tracking down, purchasing, owning, and displaying a physical album is as large a part of its appeal as the music it contains. Which is why I am so leery of my growing shift to digital music over the past year—a shift that has manifested itself not only in the convenience of listening to music via an iPod or iTunes playlist, but also in my frequenting downloadable music sites like Bandcamp. Tellingly, the majority of these digitally-acquired full-length albums have been essentially free-of-charge, and legitimately so.

From a collector’s standpoint, this is insane: Not only have I foregone purchasing music as a physical product, denying myself those very touchstones, totems, and trophies which I have heretofore so highly prized, but I have unintentionally helped to devalue said music in the digital marketplace. By going digital myself, I am joining the ranks of those who implicitly encourage more and more artists to adopt a mostly-digital distribution method, whereby the value of said artists’ albums becomes increasingly nebulous (read: pay-what-you-want pricing) and the physical product becomes all the rarer, thereby leading to retail scarcity followed by gross inflation in the resale market. To wit: $40-$120 for a used copy of Giraffes? Giraffes!’ More Skin With Milk-Mouth on Amazon.com, when a high-quality (FLAC or 320kbps MP3) digital download is only $5 at Bandcamp. To think that folks were bitching and moaning when new CDs cost nearly $20…

Forgive the discursive introduction, and know that it is not without a purpose. For as pained as I am by the music industry’s ongoing shift from physical albums to digital distribution, I admit the utility of said shift. Hell, I accept its virtues, even celebrate them: immediacy, accessibility, and affordability are boons to musicians and listeners alike. Far be it from me to decry them.

It’s just that, even as I reap the benefits of this digital revolution—say, by downloading The Speed of Sound in Seawater’s Red Version EP via Bandcamp, then opting out of paying for it like some recession-harried penny-pincher—I feel bad about it. Granted, I do not necessarily feel remorse for refusing to pay for something intangible. Not when doing so is deemed acceptable by the persons providing it, nor when I have every intention of shelling out for the physical album in the very imminent future. Still, there is the nagging thought that the vast majority of listeners, particularly those so-called Millennials, will refuse to pay as well, and with nary a moral quandary to speak of.

In the larger sense, I worry that simply not paying a band for its digital output has become reflexive to the point where it is considered right. That modern listeners have become so entitled that they fail to see the harm that they are doing with their endemic freeloading. But I risk overcomplicating an already complicated train of thought, and losing the point of this review to a muddled pro/con critique of digital distribution. So, enough of that.

The point, then, is this: I genuinely enjoy The Speed of Sound in Seawater, but I know full and well that, were it not for the aforementioned free download, I (and others like me) would likely never have heard of them. At the same time, I worry that, by making their work available for free as a means of self-promotion, The Speed of Sound in Seawater (and others like them) are undermining their ability to support themselves as artists. Quite the catch twenty-two, that.

With Red Version, the follow-up to their 2009 debut EP Blue Version, the Sacramento-based foursome of guitarist and lead vocalist Damien Verrett, drummer Fernando Oliva, bassist Lucas Ulrici, and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Jordan Seavers further explore their love of math-rock guitar riffs and stutter-stepping rhythm shifts, flavouring their contrapuntal instrumental mix with palatable croons mined from a rich vein of nasally Canuckle-pop. Vocally, Verrett’s artful wordplay and alternatingly twee and melodramatic turns of phrase come across like a mix of Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard, Amestory’s Mike Russell, Lovedrug’s Michael Shepard, and Tokyo Police Club’s Dave Monks—mellow and airy overall, but not without a tremulous bend and a wryly cynical bite which, at times, is further emphasized by backing harmonies and shouts from the rest of the band.

Red Version starts off subtly enough with the opening trumpet and glockenspiel of “Romanticore”, its portmanteau title forecasting the casual mix of lovelorn tones with mythological imagery which sedate guitars and staid rhythms then ease along. Not ‘til the mid-song breakdown of the angular and unrequited “Girl Power, Immortalized” do The Speed of Sound in Seawater break out the sharp arpeggiations which so clearly informed Blue Version, but even then their poppier sensibilities keep things from drifting too far into purebred math-rock territory.

Which is not to say that Red Version tracks like “Formaldehyde” are instrumentally dull, only that they are far more reserved than one might otherwise expect from The Speed of Sound in Seawater, especially when compared to the frantic fretwork of Blue Version songs like “You Bite Down” and “Yay, Flowers”. Arguably, this is a sign of maturity, with Verrett & co. reigning in the ruckus to let their songs breathe. After all, it’s not as though The Speed of Sound in Seawater have hobbled themselves for fear of seeming too complex—Verrett and Seavers still weave their bright notes and uncommonly adept progressions around Ulrici’s solid bass grooves and Oliva’s apt percussion, with Verrett’s calmly sung lyrics reading a good bit darker than they sound. It’s the same basic ingredients, just in different measures.

If anything, this toning down of the instrumental end of things lends more emphasis to Verrett’s songwriting, which is both clever and emotionally accessible. “Vixen of the Deep”, for one, wends its way through a doomed (and, later, strangely danceable) love affair between man and octopus. Likewise, the six- and four-string licks, motile percussion, and quick back-and-forth shifts between precious pop lilts and impassioned post-hardcore shouts in “Dinner and a Movie on a Post-Apocalyptic Earth: 12 Bottle Caps, Successfully Repopulating the Human Race: Priceless” mask a somewhat tragicomic tale of the last man on earth trying oh-so-hard to win the (admittedly physical) affections of his lone female counterpart. It might seem a bit kitschy when described so plainly, but this regularly-applied veneer of storyteller’s whimsy saves The Speed of Sound in Seawater from coming across as little more than hopeless romantics with a penchant for virtuosic chops (which are a dime a dozen these days). Good on them.

Rounding out the EP, “The Coldest Room in the House” (a titular nod to Blue Version’s album-ending “The Scariest Room in the House”) pairs its intertwining themes of freezing temperatures and cooling relationships with deftly interlocking guitar riffs and brassy percussion for a nearly seven-minutes-long confessional that wallows in young-twenty-something melodrama without getting bogged down in woe-is-me mopery. Points for the blunt self-awareness of the outgoing full-band chorus—the mantric repetition of “I am not alright” is nothing if not cathartic—as most break-up ballads tend to externalize blame rather than admit fault and distribute it evenly.

Though only six songs and less than half an hour in length, The Speed of Sound in Seawater’s Red Version EP is an admirable self-release from a capable band that skillfully blends the compositional complexity of math-rock with the approachable catharsis of pop. That the EP can so readily be heard should, by rights, make it all the more inviting for casual listeners, just as the promise of a physical, purchasable album should sit well with the more traditional collectors, and hopefully provide some scratch for the band.

I guess that’s a fair compromise.

The Speed of Sound in Seawater’s Blue Version and Red Version EPs can both be streamed and/or downloaded for free (with optional donation) via Bandcamp. The physical version of Red Version can also be purchased via Big Cartel.
Posted by: Tom Körp

Audio Reviews (November 24th, 2010)

Tags: beatbots, audio reviews, the speed of sound in seawater, red version, bandcamp