Mostly, it’s a matter of cadence. Few pop songwriters have the patience or wherewithal to vary their meters and adapt their rhymes to compliment the shifting time signatures and contrapuntal melodies inherent to the more experimental end of the rock-musical spectrum, and even fewer math-rock bands bother to pen lyrics in the first place, let alone set vocals front-and-center in the mix. Rather; they’re all about showcasing their motile rhythms and convoluted musicianship, y’dig?
So it’s a rare thing indeed for a band to blend pleasantly intelligent (and readily-intelligible) pop vocals with intricate, attention-grabbing instrumentation of the math-rock variety. Which is why the Sacramento quartet The Speed of Sound in Seawater—what with their irregular yet arresting combination of quick-shifting rhythms, nimble fretwork, poetic narratives, and lilting, arguably Canuckle-pop-ish vox—represents such a strange and wondrous musical interstice.
The Speed of Sound in Seawater’s latest self-released EP, Underwater Tell Each Other Secrets, follows closely upon the foursome’s first two EPs—2009’s Blue Version and 2010’s Red Version—and further expands upon their comp-contrasting mélange of intriguing and oft-witty lyrical vignettes and interdependent rhythms and melodies. Recorded (mostly) live at Sacramento’s The Hangar with engineer Robert Cheek, Underwater Tell Each Other Secrets is the band’s first release to feature A Lot Like Birds bassist Michael Littlefield, whose rounded, rumbling four-string attack mates well with the vibrant percussion of Fernando Oliva and the tightly intertwining guitars of multi-instrumentalist Jordan Seavers and lead vocalist Damien Verrett.
Leading off with bright chords, staccato drums, and densely interwoven four- and six-string riffs, Verrett & co. waste little time before drawing the listener into a sprawling, dynamic ode to extraterrestrial exploration in “Hot and Bothered by Space”. There’s an intriguing mix of wonderment and Manifest Destiny at work here, the meteor showers, star-charting, and resolute wanderlust in the song’s opening giving way to the pre-liftoff panic attacks, airglow freak-outs, and overawed sense of smallness which attend the full-band countdown to blastoff. Suspended in orbit and lost in thought following an extended instrumental segue, Verrett halfheartedly croons that “My friends and I catch most of what goes on out there. I’d like to think that I catch most of what goes on out there”—an obvious bluff in the face of the infinite unknown, and a fitting reversal of the cocksure attitude exhibited at the song’s outset.
“Unassisted Human Flight” continues this apparent love affair with the wild blue yonder, its initially reserved rhythm section and slow-to-develop guitars staying relatively grounded as Verrett airily details a rather literal flight of fancy. Next up, “Delmar Fisheries” reimagines mermaid folklore, complicating a typically oversimplified interspecies romance with practical concerns of how a fisherman and a fish-woman could ever work through their obvious differences in the first place. Buoyed by rapid hammer-ons, brassy kitwork, ancillary electronics, and (at times) full-band backing vocals, Verrett wonders aloud, “Are you gonna pack your clams with the things you might wear? How will you manage yourself when you get up there? So, you’re gonna hold your breath, or just breathe in? Can you stand the oxygen across you fins?”
Led in by backmasked-to-forward-running six-string arpeggios and propulsive percussion, Verrett takes a sedated turn with karma, carnies, and Fortune in “The Huge Wheel”. Instrumentally, Oliva, Seavers, and Littlefield keep things running at a casually stutter-stepping pace, only to race ahead for a mantric full-band chorus towards the end of the track. Elaborate riffs and cathartic yawps? Check and check.
Ever devoted to mythical figures and impossible romances—from Blue Version to the present, The Speed of Sound in Seawater have celebrated and/or serenaded the likes of werewolves, manticores, zombies, and amorous octopi—Verrett rounds out the Underwater Tell Each Other Secrets EP with “Or So He Sphinx”, a plaintive ode to that riddling, half-human lioness of Thebes. Though a generally laid-back closer, there’s an animated back-and-forth between the bright guitar riffs and heavy four-string hums, with relatively staid percussion keeping the lot moving towards yet another full-band chorus and a rather more rambunctious breakdown.
Chimerical though their sound may be, The Speed of Sound in Seawater’s oddball blending of virtuosic guitar heroics, irregular rhythms, and imaginative yet accessible lyrics is sure to intrigue and delight devotees of pop and math-rock alike. No mean feat, that.
Released on April 27, 2011, The Speed of Sound in Seawater’s Underwater Tell Each Other Secrets EP can be streamed and/or downloaded (with a “name-your-own-price” optional donation) via Bandcamp.
Audio Reviews (April 27th, 2011)
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