The Ocean Blue has always sounded out of place. Formed in the late ‘80s in Hershey, Pennsylvania, their sound was rooted in same vein as English New Romantic bands such as the Smiths and New Order. The discrepancy here is obvious—a town known for chocolate and the Amish doesn’t exactly sound like a haven for new wave pop-rock. What made the Ocean Blue musical outcasts, however, was that their brand of rock was already on the way out during their formation. By that time, the Smiths had already disbanded, New Order had seen the last of their major hits (with the exception of “Regret”), and hair metal had taken over the airwaves. Still, true to their roots, the Ocean Blue kept making new wave-inspired albums, making no concessions for mainstream success.
Now, after the grunge and rap-metal phases (one might say scourges), rock is reconnecting with new wave. Coldplay’s Chris Martin is friends with Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch. Groups like Franz Ferdinand and Interpol claim eighties post-punk as their musical heritage, and lush atmosphere rules over juvenile aggression. Heck, even Morrissey is hip again, making numerous appearances on The Late, Late Show and cultivating a following among… of all groups… Mexican gangsters. With such odd things going down, you might say the time is ripe for an Ocean Blue “comeback,” although that word implies initial success. Waterworks, an EP of six songs, shows why the Ocean Blue deserves respect as an influential band.
The most noticeable difference between this EP and the band’s previous work is that the Ocean Blue have added additional colors on their musical palette. “Fast Forward Reverse”, the album’s opener, is a musical piece composed mainly of synthesizers. This is a rather dangerous move; unless you’re Brian Eno, writing synthesizer songs can seem like a musical cop-out, the result of not knowing how to actually playing an instrument. Here, however, the song sets the tone for what’s to follow: carefully crafted ethereal rock.
Indeed, the Ocean Blue not only sound like new wave veterans, but also like they’ve soaked up the sounds of some ‘90s bands, particularly Stereolab and the Sea and Cake. “Pedestrian” begins with a simple dance beat, then adds minimal, airy guitar while singer David Schelzel croons disturbingly vague lyrics: “I walked to the square / I called out your name / They said you were dead / And we were to blame”. Just what the hell this means is open for debate, but placed against such drifting, melodic music, the words sound pleasant. Moreover, Schelzel’s delivery is vintage Bernard Sumner, deadpan and foppish.
To be sure, this EP is a terse synopsis of the more brilliant moments of the last 20 years. These are, however, all original songs, which is a testament to the Ocean Blue’s diversity. Take, for instance, “Ticket to Wyoming”, which is the greatest Smiths song the Smiths never wrote or recorded. Peter Anderson’s drums sound uncannily like Mike Joyce’s laidback shuffle on “Panic”, and Oed Ronne’s guitar work references Johnny Marr’s pristine and angelic style. More than the mere sum of influences, however, Ronne plays a guitar solo, something that was taboo for Marr. And then there’s the closer, “The Northern Jetstream”. Like the album’s opener, this song is instrumental, with the exception of some cooing “do-doo-doos”. Once again, this piece blends synthesized elements with acoustic guitar and dance-inspired drumming. Rather than sounding boringly clinical (which is how most electronic-based music sounds), “The Northern Jetstream” sounds sophisticated, bouncy, and catchy.
With Waterworks, the Ocean Blue has crafted a fine EP. Thankfully, this is just a prelude to a full-length LP, scheduled for release next year. After more than 15 years of trying to find a receptive audience, the Ocean Blue is positioned for their due accolades. Sure, they won’t find mainstream success, but such a backwards achievement would only degrade the group’s status. Besides, who wants to be loved by the masses when young gangsters with tattoos are pining for dreamy new wave? Hey, whoever listens, right?