Where were we again? Oh yeah: we were discussing what country and western music from a modern English rock band would sound like. My gut reaction takes me back to the feeling I had seeing Westside Story in London—and believe me, you don’t want details. Besides, the very roots of country music are deeply implanted in American soil, conjuring images of pioneers on the range, guitars played from the back of pickup trucks, legends told by wranglers beside crackling campfires. But if you’ll entertain the notion for a minute, this hybrid—bowing melodies with just a hint of twang, songs wrought with provincialism and postmodernism—has the makings of a tantalizing experiment. That is, given the right technicians.
Introduce Ocean Colour Scene into this lab—a foursome from Birmingham who’ve been together since 1989—and you’ve got Mechanical Wonder, their fifth release. Here, the group stray some from the big, blues-inspired rock that characterized their monster hit Moseley Shoals and later work, and instead tinker with a flavor that’s much more easygoing, much more smiles and small town. And the result is a slower reaction—an album that grows on you more than it addicts you, and acts more like a culture than a catalyst.
A certain calmness and folksy sincerity meander through nearly every track, but take the last number, “Something for Me”, as a telling illustration. Open, acoustic guitar strumming sets the song off, followed closely by Simon Fowler’s soulful, Small Faces-like vocals. His singing is matter-of-fact in its asking: “You gotta do something / Something for free / You gotta do something / for me”. Harmonies flow in predictably and pleasantly; in the background, a guitar solo with attitude peeks out from underneath the tune’s fabric. It’s a straightforward, no-frills number, ending the album as if to say, “well, here it is”.
When the frills do come, even they show off demurely, never straying from a place that’s 100% humble. The opening number, “Up on the Downside”, is a singable, Dick-and-Jane sort of track, decorated with tambourine, high hat, and bright, limber crooning. Midway through the album comes the honky-tonk “Give Me a Letter”, a linear narrative told by piano, wah-wah guitars, and drums that thrust methodically on the two and four. And the title track, “Mechanical Wonder”, doesn’t seem like a wonder at all; as Fowler sings “The mechanical wonder is / just a noise in my room”, all the mystery of such a curious title fades away with the relaxed guitars and simple melody.
It’s hard, though, to tell if Ocean Colour Scene have simply matured or simply aged. While there are few tracks that offend—the weakest number is “If I Gave You My Heart”, mostly because its saccharine mood is exactly what you expect—there are few that wow, either. The brash and ballsy sound so integral to their previous trailblazers is absent here; as a result, there’s no measure to adequately judge the strength of their emotive, reflective numbers. Lyrically, too, there isn’t the same demand from the listener for imagination and reckoning; instead, it’s as if the songs are trying to reach you at the place where you are, and dare not stir you from that location.
Maybe a modicum of passivity is a stylistic mandate—after all, if in trying a new sound you’ve already pushed the envelope, is there really a place for ripping it open? And without a doubt, Ocean Colour Scene have produced an album that’s warm and full, leaving the listener bathed in a peaceful glow. Still, come to Mechanical Wonder knowing that, while the idea of the territory may be unfamiliar, this is really a place that you’ve been. And beyond that, there shouldn’t be any more questions.