The Southern Sea: Simple Machines for Complex Problems (Independent, 2005)

by Brent

The Southern Sea Simple Machines for Complex ProblemsA few years ago, way back in our site’s history when I first started writing reviews, I received a little 4 song EP from a band called The Southern Sea. Nina and the Wrong Note was a delightful listen, and the gentle guitar work and light overall sound portrayed the band’s attention to detail as well as their sense of sentimentality and musicality. I’ve never forgotten that little EP, or forgotten the name of that band, as they not only created a sweet-sounding CD, but were also one of the first bands to believe in our site.

Fast forward 2 ½ or 3 years, and lo and behold, on my daily jaunt to my mailbox I recently discovered an envolope from The Southern Sea. This time, a 6 song EP entitled Simple Machines for Complex Problems fell out of the package, and I immediately played it, eager to hear the latest music from this band. Though the wait was long, The Southern Sea does not disappoint with their latest effort. In fact, if anything, the band has surpassed my expectations, as they’ve crafted with Simple Machines for Complex Problems a gorgeous collection of dreamy and airy indie-pop songs. While the same attention to detail, solid songwriting, and light mood that appeared on Nina and the Wrong Note appears on Simple Machines for Complex Problems, the band has obviously grown by leaps and bounds in terms of their confidence, songwriting, and overall music vision.

Simple Machines for Complex Problems begins with what sounds like a sample from a motivational tape, immediately heralding The Southern Sea subtle sense of humour that pervades their music. A metronome track clicks in, and the opening strains of “Iowa Mountain Tour” commence with the trademark intertwining guitar and bass parts that maked the band’s previous efforts. The mood is light, and once the drumming begins, the music has an almost jazzy feel. The vocals of Brad Wofford flow into the music, in a layered harmonizing approach, highlighting the noted  improvement in Wofford’s vocals. Wofford sighs with falsetto “ooh’s” and “aahs” during the song’s majestic closing, reminding the listener of The Beach Boys’s more orchestrated output. Similarly, “Hotel Mishaps are Sad” opens with a layered vocal line whose melody could be snatched from any Beach Boys recording. In fact, with its handclaps, campy beat, tambourine, layered vocals, and lo-fi keyboard parts, “Hotel Mishaps are Sad” readily conjures up images of summer. The song works on all levels with its strong harmonies, solid performances, and the 80’s drum machine break down is both fun and pristine. The song erupts into a climax of keyboards and the crashing ride cymbal technique of Bill Hale ( who also contributed background vocals throughout Simple Machines for Complex Problems). In fact, along with band’s overall atmosphere, sense of humour, and the sweet vocals of Wofford, my favourite aspect of The Southern Sea’s music is Hale’s drumming, as he frequently employs a fascination of the ride cymbal that is always perfectly employed at the right moments. A dominating bass line marks the beginning of “Viva La Guadalajara Bob”, but as soon as the vocals arrive, the listener knows they are in for a shiny pop song. Guitars, pianos, organs, and loads of perfect vocal harmonies mark “Viva La Guadalajara Bob”, and the band succeeds again at creating an interesting, fun and engaging song.

Next, the emotional highlight of Simple Machines for Complex Problems appears with “There is a Fountain”, an 18th century hymn. To tackle such weighty material on a pop CD is quite ambitious, but somehow The Southern Sea make “There is a Fountain” their own while retaining a sense of true sincerity. This version of the hymn abounds in fun keyboard parts, trashy drum machines, delicate guitar and keyboard work, strings, and the band’s ever-present vocal harmonies. Amazingly, “There is a Fountain” ends up sounding like it was written as an indie pop song, and it works perfectly with the band’s inventive arrangements. After this beautiful musical expression, the band picks up their guitars and play a style of music more reminiscent of their previous EP on “The Mighty Cottonwood Creek”. With picked guitars, a solitary vocal performance from Wofford, and a slightly melancholy melody, “The Mighty Cottonwood Creek” harkens back to the days when the band sounded a little more rural. With gentle piano, strange background samples, and an overall sensitive approach to the song, The Southern Sea shows their ability to paint a picture of sad soundscapes through their music. Finally, Simple Machines for Complex Problems, end on what is perhaps the musical highlight of the EP with the short “Philosophy”. The song is pure pop goodness, with its “bah-bah” vocals, chimey keyboards, smooth bass line, excellent drumming from Hale, and perfect melody. Though at only 2 ½ minutes “Philosophy” is a little short, the song is a sugary conclusion for the EP, and it’s melody loiters in the mind long after the song is done playing.

Simple Machines for Complex Problems is simply a charming and enjoyable listen from start to finish. The band mixes humour with musical sensitivity and winds up creating an indie-pop CD that is listenable, interesting, and fun (and they are even able to pull at a few heart-strings with “There is a Fountain”!). Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give The Southern Sea is that I simply listen to this EP over and over again, never getting bored, and thoroughly enjoying every second. Simple Machines for Complex Problems is the perfect soundtrack for a trip to the beach, or the perfect picker-upper on a cloudy gloomy day. I hope we don’t have to wait 3 years for the next release from this talented band. For fans of: The Beach Boys, Goldenwest-era Ester Drang, Summer Hymns, Elf Power, etc.

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