Monday, September 14, 2009

Old music: The Ocean Blue's Beneath the Rhythm and Sound (1993)

This one is about as classic as they come.

Speaking, of course, in terms of ‘cult’ or perhaps ‘fan favorite’ classic status.

The Ocean Blue drew immediate comparisons to the Smiths when they first emerged; in fact, some outlets even referred to them as America’s answer to the Manchester foursome. The comparisons, I’ve always felt, are a compliment to both sides of the equation as the Ocean Blue rarely wrote songs as resonating and the Smiths rarely wrote songs as outright beautiful. But, through both groups’ love of likeable guitar pop, a croony, introspective lead singer and concise, dreamy melodies that seem deceptively obvious and simultaneously effortless, they both successfully transcended and achieved longevity.

After two unimpeachably strong albums —1989’s self-titled album and 1991’s gorgeously dreamy Cerulean— on which the band blended its textured and heavily effected guitars with keyboard and saxophone harmonies from kitchen sink man Steve Lau, they seemed to focus for their third album on a more guitar-centric, pop-oriented direction that both retained the integrity of their early releases and squeezed them down into a bite size morsel of unbelievably good and heartfelt music.

I must stress that when this following term is applied to this music, it is a very exact interpretation of what the band created and one of the finest examples of the term ever conjured up: the album is, quite literally, jangle pop.

The band is credited as having self-produced the album, but with multiple engineering and mixing credits, the sound of the record is varied and never one-dimensional. To be completely honest, it’s one of the warmest albums I ever heard.

(A very insightful interview places where the band was at around when this album came out.)

The album starts on a random and unexpected note: a busy solo bass riff from Bobby Mittan. From there, ‘Peace of Mind’ introduces the album when the rest of the band swoops in and the song just builds layers upon layers; David Schelzel’s guitar never content to just play one chord progression or arpeggio for more than a few bars. It’s something to marvel at… and the fact that it’s kind of a second-tier track on the album is even more impressive.

The follow-up, the album’s first single —and the song that contained the lyrics from which the album took its title— was the appropriately named ‘Sublime.’ Alternating acoustic chords and electric arpeggios provide the base for what can only be described as power jangle pop. Not a dirty hint of distortion or dissonance is to be found, and though it did crack the pop charts a bit, it was the group’s only —and very brief— flirtation with commercial success.

After a mournfully melancholy ballad (‘Listen, It’s Gone’) and a would be near-rocker were it not for the lowly mixed vocals (‘Either/Or’), the album’s amazing centerpiece is up.

‘Bliss is Unaware’ is nearly perfection. Holy christ, is it amazing. With the inclusion of Steve Lau’s sax and perfect keyboard accents, you’d think it would be the most reminiscent of the band’s previous material, but that seems like an insult. I usually consider myself not a fan of the blatantly over the top pop songs, but in cases like this, the song is so good, so well-executed and so universal that it would be denying my basic human rights to not enjoy the heck out of it. A simple, catchy riff, a maddeningly addictive chorus, topped off with some perfectly understated congas and one of the single weirdest pseudo-funky middle eight breaks in recorded music and you get easily the album’s highlight, the Blue’s best song and one of the true injustices in the annals of pop music singles that should have been massively popular. I can listen to it on repeat for extended periods of time and still love it as much as the first listen. Two and a half minutes of absolute heaven.

At which point, the album’s bar —which, in preceding moments, seemed to be collectively raised as each track passed— coolly maintains its level like nothing all that special is happening.

‘Ice Skating At Night’ is slow and dreamy and sounds like something from Cerulean while ‘Don’t Believe Everything You Hear’ is about as rockin’ as the album gets. The near-shoegaze of ‘Cathedral Bells’ and the unfolding melodicism of ‘The Relatives’ keep things peppy while ‘Crash’ and ‘Emotions Ring’ illustrate perfectly why the band was favorably compared to the Smiths in the first place and, at the same time, put up a fine argument for their skills as cohesive and resonating balladeers.

This was the final full-length the original lineup of the band made. And even though the recent releases by a revamped lineup are quite good and rewarding, Beneath the Rhythm and Sound remains the apex of those first three albums.

It seems strange. Bands used to be given several years and multiple albums to grow and mature into this sort of record. And the Ocean Blue took advantage of that scenario. And that’s not to discount those first two albums; they are both roughly four to four-and-a-half star albums in their own right. Beneath the Rhythm and Sound, however, is the perfect third album: a concise restatement of what earned the band a following in the first place and a colorful, eye-opening expansion of every aspect of the palette from which they were drawing their initial inspiration.

Where the band’s previous singles (like ‘Drifting, Falling’ and ‘Ballerina Out of Control’) had been pop without the intention of being so, with their third album, the Ocean Blue created Between the Rhythm and Sound as a seeming intentional masterwork of likeable songs aimed directly at a wider audience. The charge of sellout seems a rather inappropriate one — on the contrary, the songs on this album are just that good. If they were to gain the band new fans by the stadium load, so be it.

But they didn’t. And the band’s fan base remained respectable, but modest.

I was in eighth grade when it was released and I remember briefly hearing ‘Sublime’ and maybe seeing the clip for it on 120 Minutes, but besides that, this was something I didn’t truly discover until I was a senior in high school — a full six years after the fact. At the time, it sounded timeless. Like something that had just existed my entire life and was just sitting there waiting for me to discover it. I can say, in one of the truest statements you’ll ever see from me, that in the ten or so years since I first soaked this album in, it has slowly but surely grown in stature with me every single time I listen to it.

It was the first album I listened to while driving in my car by myself the afternoon after I passed my driver’s test and officially had my license to drive. I had nowhere to go; I just wanted to hear this album outside of my bedroom. And it sounded fantastic. It still does.

It can now be listened to with a nostalgic ear and it’s a wonderfully happy reminder for me. One of the few things outside of hip hop that I enjoyed in high school, it is a pleasant reminder of that carefree Clinton-era of the mid-90’s when things were serious, but not outright bad.

Truly, for me, it stands right there with Loveless, Wish, Pygmalion, OK Computer and Your Arsenal as one of the best rock albums of the 1990’s.

Thirty-seven minutes of pure magnificence.

I’d be dumb if it didn’t get the seal of approval.