Luke Irelan-Hill reviews Ocean Colour Scene’s latest album Painting and is pleased to note they’ve kept their palette simple.
The critics hate them and, to this day, nobody seems to know why. When people dismiss this band, they’ll say that it’s because they rely on the past too much and they’re stuck in the ‘60s. Meanwhile artists like Miles Kane and Jake Bugg turn to retro rock for inspiration and are praised for it.
There is no denying that OCS lived in the Shadow of the Gallagher brothers and their Britpop group Oasis, and it’s hard to believe that OCS were formed two years before Oasis. It’s also hard to believe that it is OCS who are still active whereas Noel and Liam split up 4 years ago.
Like most people, I discovered them by listening to their 1996 album ‘Moseley Shoals’, an album I still regard as one of the best of the decade and one that I have a place for in my top 10 albums of all time. The 1997 follow up ‘Marchin’ Already’ was another fine record and boasted more classic singles.
However, by the time ‘One From The Modern’ was released in 1999, the Britpop boom was over, the band seemed rather out of step with things. Since then OCS have averaged a new album every two years but have never reached the heights of albums already mentioned; perhaps their inability to move with the musical times is why for so long they have been slated by the critics? The albums that followed certainly weren’t as strong, although each one did have their moments. In fact if you were to take two or three of the best songs from each of the LPs they made between 2001 and 2010, you’d definitely have enough to compile a very strong and established set of tracks. Maybe following those hit albums was hard, and perhaps they’ve been trying a bit too hard of over thinking things at times. After the original four piece lost a member in 2005, they recruited two more instead, forming the line up that wrote and recorded the last two records. For the recording of this album they return as the core three piece.
Can a band who had so much success as a four piece suddenly lose a member, capture two more, still have the same success? No. Well not in the case of OCS anyway.
Perhaps with five people in the band there was too much going on at one time, and with every group member penning songs, the sense of direction of the band was arguably being lost. The three long-term musical companions have reconnected with each other in a way that has had a positive effect on the songs this time around. They are not back to the success of the ‘90s, but ‘Painting’ is a lot closer than the efforts of the last decade. The latest LP is slightly more diverse then what fans have been used too in the past, yet the majority still fits together nicely as a complete package, flowing somewhat smoother than their previous 5 albums. You can immediately notice on ‘Painting’ that they sound much more relaxed, and their certainly seems to more confidence. They have managed to keep it short, sharp and on the whole free from any unnecessary excess. Frontman Simon Fowler has recently been developing his folk influences with his other band Merrymouth, while guitarist Steve Cradock’s solo albums seems to have lent ‘Painting’ some of its lightly psychedelic arrangements. It is obvious throughout the latest album that their other projects have given them a better and certainly clearer understanding of what material suits OCS and what stuff they should keep for their other musical outlets.
Opening the latest album is ‘We Don’t Look In The Mirror’ and with its birdsong in the background, it evokes the sensation of waking up on a beautiful spring morning. It is characterised by a bright percussion loop, piano, mellotron, bass and an unmistakably English vocal that’s accompanied with some lovely harmonies. Bouncy, breezy and very addictive, ‘Painting’s’ title track is going to stick in the head of listeners for some time, while ‘Goodbye Old Town’ is rather like The Who with a banjo. That is definitely not a bad thing, and it will sound fantastic on the stereo in the middle of summer. ‘Doodle Book’ has a lively northern soul feel and recalls their 1997 classic ‘Traveller’s Tune’, and the brief reggae interlude in the middle is most unexpected, yet at the same time extremely welcome.
‘If God Made Everyone’ features some of Cradock’s most satisfying guitar work in years, and is a ‘Sympathy For The Devil’-esque earworm that addresses the evil behind the Norwegian mass murders, while ‘Weekend’s sorrowful elegance provides a smart heartbreaker worthy of Bacharach.
Unfortunately and frustratingly, the flow of the album is disrupted by ‘Professor Perplexity’, which sounds like a rip off of Public Image Ltd’s ‘This Is Not A Love Song’ that occasionally drifts into some brief and rather ill-fitting psychedelic interludes.
Short, minimal and mournful, ‘George’s Tower’ acts as a nice prelude to ‘I Don’t Want To Leave England’s attractive Kinks-esque melancholy, and afterwards ‘The Winning Side’ deals with the tragedies of war, poignantly sung from the viewpoint of a grieving parent mourning the loss of their son.
The album continues to flow and ‘Mistaken Identity’ again proves that Fowler is exceptional at coming up with those supersized melodies that pull at your heartstrings, while ‘The Union’s simple verses carry into a hazy, floaty chorus before treating the listener to a guitar solo that sounds like it escaped from the new Suede record.
One thing noticeably missing from the album is a big anthem. The title and tone of ‘The New Torch Song’ gives the impression that they intended it to be the big anthem, but it fails to hit the heights it wants to. But, thankfully, it is one of only two under-par songs on this otherwise excellent LP. It ends with the subtle and beautifully understated ‘Here Comes The Dawning Day’, where Fowler’s plaintive vocal is accompanied only by acoustic guitar. And it is stunning.
On the whole, ‘Painting’ is a big step forward for OCS who have arguably found their place in the music industry again after a long time in the wilderness. But to ensure maximum enjoyment is taken from this album we are going to have to accept we are never going to hear them beat ‘Moseley Shoals’, but the vast majority of this record is certainly a return to form.