If there's a real feeling with Ultramarine, despite its obvious craft, it's that it's a little on the bland side.
The Ocean Blue is an American band, but it sure doesn't sound like it. The quartet has been mining sounds from such British acts as the Smiths, the Psychedelic Furs and Echo and the Bunnymen (whose fourth album is where the Ocean Blue pull their name from), among others, for the better part of 25 years now. The Ocean Blue isn't quite gloomy, but they have that sound that could only come from the rain soaked isles of Britannia – except, of course, the group is not British. After almost 14 years since their last release, Davy Jones' Locker, the Ocean Blue are returning with a new album, this time on their own label (which resembles the name of Echo's label, Korova, a little bit) after a four record stint with a couple of major labels early on in their career. And some have been harkening it back to a return to roots of sorts – the album title not only neatly dovetails with the band name, but the backcatalogue item Cerulean as well. Plus, the song "Latin Blues" has a reference to the band's first record via a lyric that quotes early song "Drifting/Falling" ("Drift and fall again / It's going to be different this time."). So Ultramarine is an album that will likely please old fans and pick up new ones who like their music suitably retro. But everyone else might find this a bit on the "meh" side. While Ultramarine boasts some alright songs, the album feels particularly front loaded, and it tends to meander on well past its expiry, even at 12 songs and 44 minutes long. The Ocean Blue play their cards early here, then bludgeon them to death. As frontman David Schelzel even sings here, "The ground gives way beneath my feet." True, dat.
Still, the album is remarkably consistent in tone and approach, and you have to give some marks for that. Plus, you might find yourself having fun playing a little game called "spot the influence". For instance, the folksy strum of "New York 6AM" gives way to a bracing propulsion that bears more than a passing similarity to the opening part of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart". "Sad Night, Where Is Morning?" has that very bass heavy sound of New Order before giving way to something that sounds a lot like Echo and the Bunnymen's "Bring On the Dancing Horses". "Blow My Mind" could sort of pass for a Smiths song, with Schelzel doing his best Morrisey impersonation. And once you get into the back half of the album, the band is crossing the Sundays with Echo for large parts of it. So, yes, if you're a child of the '80s and mourn the loss of that decade, there'll be plenty for you to lap up here in spades, particularly if you like your music with a British lilt.
However, the album isn't entirely all aces. "A Rose Is a Rose" is annoyingly twee with insipid, forgettable lyrics such as "A rose is a rose is a rose / Just like everybody knows / You feel the grass between your toes / And you smile." It's kind of catchy, true, but tediously so to the point where you might want to take a sharp object – a pointy pencil, perhaps – and mercilessly gouge the fleshy space between your eyeballs. And while "Give It a Try" has a suitably John Hughes movie feel to it, as a rocker it generally goes nowhere. It's also perhaps the most solidly jangle rock thing on the album, as much of Ultramarine feels particularly soft shoe, which also kills some of its momentum. Despite all that, it is masterfully constructed, by and large, and it does feel like the product of many years in the making. (The album, indeed, took several years to record, owing to the fact that the members are spread out over the country and all have day jobs; Schelzel is even an intellectual property lawyer these days, and plans to balance that career with touring behind Ultramarine.) It could even be said that this long player has a "rainy day weekend afternoon" feel to it, and might be the thing to throw on the hi-fi during an overcast spring Saturday.
However, if there's a real feeling with Ultramarine, despite its obvious craft, it's that it's a little on the bland side. The more you listen to it, the more you realize there isn't anything resembling a stand-out track or two, which does owe to the fact that the record feels like a unified whole. Still, there's not a lot here that really catches, and what you get is a pleasant time-filler. There is some passable material here, and there's an overlying thematic of soft gloominess to the proceedings, but it never really catches fire in the way that you might expect it to. That's a bit of a pain point; clearly, the band is trying, but it just never erupts and much of the album feels rather ordinary. Ultramarine shows that the Ocean Blue's best years may be already behind them, and while Schelzel has gone on the record as saying the group didn't set out to make a record that was trying to cash in on a certain nostalgia, it still feels like it. And while the group may be acting its age with its lush songs here, it's just ... argh! Too mellow for its own good. So take from that what you may, but I get the lingering impression that Ultramarine will likely be best picked up by fans or those who like '80s British rock, and can't discern the real deal from a carbon copycat. The album might be resoundingly successful in copping a sound that's now decades old, but, honestly, I think I'd rather go back and listen to Heaven Up Here again than sit through the soft pastel swirls of Ultramarine. Maybe you should too. It doesn't get much better than Echo and the Bunnymen, something that the Ocean Blue patently realize through shaky imitation.