The High Water Marks’ debut, Songs About the Ocean, is a perfect album to listen to on your CD player’s oft-neglected random setting. Taken individually, each of the 13 tracks here is an enjoyable blast of lo-fi indie pop. But each one of those blasts is so strikingly similar that even with its relatively short running time of 38 minutes, you’ll probably find your interest waning about halfway through. So each time you pop the disc in, you may as well be treated to a different handful of tracks.
Of course, this begs the question: if it’s only going to hold my attention for 20 minutes, why have I bought the album in the first place? Probably because you are a pretty big Apples in Stereo fan, and you’re looking to get a fix of the exquisitely crafted brand of lo-fi rock that the Apples perfected on their early releases before trying their hand at Beatles-inspired psych-rock and then Powerpuff Girls-inspired, over-caffeinated cartoon pop. After all, Apples drummer Hilarie Sydney is at the forefront of this band, penning and performing each of these tracks in a Postal Service-esque fashion with her Norwegian pen pal, Per Ole Bratset.
And Songs About the Ocean does comes pretty damn close to recreating the Apples’ initial sound. It certainly comes much closer than Apples frontman Robert Schneider’s new project, Ulysses, though Schneider probably made a more concerted effort to branch out. Sydney was relegated to second banana status behind her then-husband Schneider in the Apples, contributing just a track or two to each album. Those tracks were usually among the highlights, though, especially “Winter Must Be Cold” from the group’s 1995 debut Fun Trick Noisemaker, and “20 Cases Suggestive Of” from 2001’s The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone. Now she’s a co-first banana, splitting duties down the center with Bratset. Her songs are no longer there for a change of pace, but instead are the pace itself. While the quality is just as strong, the one-dimensionality keeps things from getting too interesting. Bratset’s songs offer little variation, save his slightly annoying nasal voice. Still, fans of the Apples and hooky, lo-fi indie rock in general should find plenty to like here.
The band shows its hand with the lead track, “Good I Feel Bad”. No time is wasted with any sort of intro: it’s all-out from the get-go. Splashing drums, fuzzy guitars, and Sydney’s unnaturally high-pitched vocals all share the spotlight. Bratset takes the vocal helm during the bridge, and adds a quick, noisy solo before giving way to Sydney’s vocals. The song never lets up for its full two-and-a-half minutes, and is reminiscent of the Apples tune “Tidal Wave”, though it doesn’t pack quite as strong a punch. Still, it’s a fun tune and a definite head-nodder.
But the same could be said for just about every song here. There’s nothing profoundly wrong with this: it’s better for a band, especially on its first album, to play to its strengths and, first and foremost, to write a good batch of songs. Forced deviation is certainly no guarantee of a stronger album.
A few tunes show variation, and they prove to be the highlights of the set. “Sixth of July” is what the Strokes might sound like if they were a lo-fi, female-fronted indie pop band. The start/stop rhythm guitar is right out of the Albert Hammond, Jr. playbook, while the lead guitar creates the same sort of faux-keyboard effect used on “12:51”. This is a welcome break from the usual chugging of the guitars, and it gives the song a little room to breathe.
Another highlight is the album closer, “High Water Marks”. They slow it down—just a bit, mind you—enough to make your ears perk up after the dozen preceding hard-chargers. Bratset and Sydney trade off the first couple verses, then team up on the third. Even though (as on the rest of the album) they aren’t saying much of consequence, it’s still rather charming. The two imperfect voices working in tandem is a nice effect; it could have been used more frequently on the record.
Songs About the Ocean is what it is: a fun if disposable album with plenty of catchy songs written by a couple of people who know exactly what works in their little micro-genre. Maybe next time, if Sydney and Bratset are in the same room—or even the same country—during the creation of the record, they’ll be able to conjure up some new ideas to make things a bit more interesting.