Ocean Colour Scene is one of those British bands that you could call “dependable”, at least in the sense that you’re almost guaranteed to get a new studio album every couple of years. The band is most famous in their homeland for riding the crest of the ‘90s Britpop wave – they have at least one bona-fide classic under their belt with 1996’s Moseley Shoals, which spawned a few hit singles – and for opening for the likes of Paul Weller and Oasis back in the day.
With Painting, their 10th studio outing and first record of original material in three years instead of the usual two (though the gap was covered by a career-spanning anniversary box set), the band is clearly travelling a well-worn path of mining ‘60s pop tunes and a bit of psychedelia, and updating those sounds with a deft sonic kick. And an Ocean Colour Scene album, especially in latter years, is bound to have 13 or 14 songs; Painting, at 14 tracks long (not counting Japanese pressing-only bonus tracks) is certainly no different. So Painting is kind of a stone-age album: the band isn’t really overtly redefining themselves or their sound or approach, per se, but, my, these guys can certainly pen a great, hummable tune. If you miss the glory days of Britpop, even if Blur is back to some degree, Painting will definitely keep you fixated.
What makes Painting an interesting piece is that it expertly covers both the bright and the dour in equal measure, without coming off as excessive. While these songs tend to be happy and punchy – you could even say that opener “We Don’t Look in the Mirror”, with its chorus of children giggling and playing in the background, is on the twee side – there’s also some very dark subject matter to be had here. “If God Made Everyone”, which is a bit structurally similar to XTC’s “Dear God”, is about convicted Norwegian mass murder Anders Behring Breivik. (“If God made everyone / WHO IN THE HELL MADE YOU?!” spits lead singer Simon Fowler with particular vitriol and rage.) “Mistaken Identity” is a personal song of alarm: it deals with Fowler’s encounter with a man in a park moments before said man fatally stabbed a passing cyclist in 2004. And “The Winning Side”, a song that at first blush is about celebrating the positive outcome of a war (perhaps a nod to the recent conflict in Afghanistan?) is told from the perspective of a parent who has lost their son in battle: “On parade now / The mantelpiece somewhere in my head / All the Christmases and other days to dread.” The song simply drips of effective irony.
But not everything about Painting is all doom and gloom. “The New Torch Song”, the penultimate track on the record, is about being swept up in the joyous celebration in England that accompanied last year’s well-received Olympic games (“All around the games / We could see the sun / All around the games / Holding so much love”) and perhaps, though this could be a stretch, you could even extend the thematic over to the jubilee celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. And “I Don’t Want to Leave England” is about being patriotic to your homeland in spite of some less than savory elements: “So many children with nothing to do / Except for the poor ones and standing the queues / Still, I don’t want to leave England.” Meanwhile, “Doodle Book” is a fun, giddy stab at old style ‘70s rock – it kind of comes across as an alternate take on an early 10cc song, just without the stabs at parody that said band was famous for, and there’s even a reggae break that recalls “Dreadlock Holiday” just a little bit.
Essentially, the run of first four songs form a loose theme of bounciness and happiness, even though “We Don’t Look in the Mirror” is about the fears of growing old: “We don’t look in the mirror now / ‘Cause the face that’s looking back / Is lookin’ rather cracked / So we don’t look in the mirror now.” While it may be perhaps my least favourite song on the record, it feels like it is somehow tacked on like Wilco’s “Can’t Stand It” feels off as the intro to Summerteeth, some may find it appealing precisely because Fowler effectively channels the vocal style of Ray Davies from the Kinks. From there, the title track has a jangly, almost Blur feel to it, while the banjo-led “Goodbye Old Town” is toe-tappingly delightful.
There are other pleasures to be found throughout Painting, but none perhaps so divine as “Professor Perplexity”, which is a rocking take on ‘60s psychedelic music with its slurry, reverb-heavy vocals and peels of guitar feedback at the end of the track. “Weekend”, which precedes it, is just simply a great Britpop number, and I suspect it should go on to be a big hit in Britain if it gets the single treatment. Acoustic guitar ballad “Here Comes the Dawning Day” even cozily recalls “Lullabye” by ‘70s American singer-songwriter Emitt Rhodes. I could go on, but, suffice to say, Painting is wall to wall with great songs, and a sense of balance between its retro-infused styles and themes. It’s a record that you cannot get bored of listening to; there’s some kind of hidden joy and surprise to be found around the next corner.
Even if Painting does very little to expand the sonic palette of Ocean Colour Scene, it is a very strong, self-assured and confident recording. It’s, in other words, a crowd pleaser. While I’m unsure if this is the stuff that will make international audiences swoon with delight, thanks to the LP’s British-isms, it is definitely an album that the faithful in their homeland will hold closely to their chest and be happy to call it their own. Ten studio LPs in, Painting just proves that Ocean Colour Scene is a band you can depend on to make some glorious and thoughtful music that only panders to its members’ joy of classic pop. Enjoy this record. It’s great.