Tuesday, 18 February 2014

REVIEW: Ocean Colour Scene - 'Marchin' Already' - Deluxe Edition (Universal Records)

Ocean Colour Scene were never a Britpop band, but were a group who found their way through the door thanks to the thriving climate for British guitar acts during the mid 90's. After an unsuccessful stab at following in the footsteps of the Stone Roses in the early 90's, they were saved by persistence and good luck and being in the right place at the right time. Britpop gave the legendary Paul Weller a new lease of life in the mid 90's, and by this point half of OCS were playing in his band. Thanks to a classic album in 1996's 'Moseley Shoals', they became a favourite of Noel Gallagher, who was pretty much looked upon as God at the time. Add to this the man of the moment Chris Evans soundtracking all his TV shows with their music, and it's undeniable that Ocean Colour Scene were part of Britpop's wider picture. And because they also didn't fit in with the genre, they weren't immediately affected by its decline in 1997. 


'Marchin' Already' came shortly after their previous hit album, and picked up where it left off. Combining mod rock, RnB and Northern soul with slight touches of psychedelica and folk, it was certainly more diverse than the straight forward indie hits of the time. Despite music journalists and hipsters giving acclaim to many other bands who were influenced by the past, their knives were out when 'Marchin' Already' was released. Luckily the public ignored them and the album went straight to number one, temporarily displacing 'Be Here Now' as the big album of the time. As their third full length is reissued as a deluxe edition nearly 17 years on, it's still hard to believe that so many critics insist in disliking a band responsible for such brilliantly written and well delivered songs like these. They may not have been pushing sonic boundaries or trying to invent the music of the future, but many of these songs are just as essential as the classics that influenced these four top class musicians. Brendan Lynch's raw production that toughens up their sound, lending it a timeless quality, while the Birmingham four piece are all at the very top of their game.


It kicks off with the road-hitting rock anthem 'Hundred Mile High City', an urgent burst of resonance and excitement that finds the excellent Oscar Harrison beating out adrenaline-fuelled rhythms while Steve Cradock tears into hard rock riffage and thrilling, wild solos. It's very much OCS at full throttle, food on the pedal, throwing the listener into the action as the high pitched blast of a whistle being blown before the solo tops off the chaos. Boring? Dull? What are you talking about, critics?

Their songwriting abilities are highlighted by the wondrously arranged melancholic singalong 'Better Day', which emotionally captures the feeling of good times coming to an end and looking forward to a happier future that somehow seems slightly out of reach. The irresistible 'Traveller's Tune' is full of joy, uplifted further by soul legend P.P Arnold's backing vocal. A terrific song almost impossible not to move to, it brings classic Northern Soul vibes into the 90's, giving freshness and vitality to what could have turned out merely retro. The superb 'Big Star' is built on excellent percussive rhythms, effectively arranged chords and tidy, brooding bass, shining a light on the band's darker, moodier side and delivering one of the band's most underrated moments. Following it, the beaming smile that is 'Debris Road' pairs some gorgeous dusky instrumentation with an infectiously sunny chorus, while the sleepily delicate acoustic tranquility of the lazed, understated beauty 'Besides Yourself' is a blissful moment of calm before the awesome 'Get Blown Away' wades slowly and menacingly through the storm of blistering guitar effects which zap across the song's intro. Then come the authoritive piano notes and Simon Fowler's exquisite vocal, flowing into masterfully written verses that offer several killer hooks, all together a perfect package. 


It makes the following 'Tele He's Not Talking' sound even weaker when it limps in uninterestingly. I didn't think it was good enough for the album 17 years ago, and I still don't. Maybe overconfidence in the song on their part was to blame, but surely the record didn't have to be 13 tracks long. In this case, less would be more. The critics who dismissed them as bland, unoriginal and tired are wrong... Unless they're only talking about this one track. Luckily the slump doesn't last long, as the goods are delivered on the jaunty, minimally arranged acoustic singalong 'Foxy's Folk Faced', which features a glorious chord sequence at the end of the bridge. The full on Northern Soul stomp of 'All Up' sounds like it could have come directly from the soundtrack of some 60's thriller, alive with dramatic piano chords, a beefy, pounding rhythm and more sensational guitar work from Cradock as he lets loose on his fretboard.


'Spark And Cindy''s swinging bassline is by far the most interesting thing about the second of the album's unconvincing blips, a boring filler that that pales compared to the tracks that surround it. A touch of humour can be found in the lyrics of the slightly unusual 'Half A Dream Away', a superb helping of easy going old-time ska and a track that demonstrates their ability to adapt to different musical settings, while always bringing something of their own to the mixture. The 26 seconds of sparkling acoustic guitar that leads into the following track is for me the most magical moment of the band's entire career, providing a stunning bridge into 'It's A Beautiful Thing'. Duetting with P.P Arnold, Fowler's voice gives every word sincerity and again it shows the strength in their songwriting, delighting further when it slips into an extended, psychedelic soul jam until the end. A glorious climax to a wonderful and underrated album, a classic of the times if it was short of the two duff tracks. Just skip them and everything is perfect here.

Clearly on something of a roll, the brilliance wasn't just confined to the albums either. After a compilation of B sides from the previous album's singles went gold in a few days, it was apparent that the extra tracks on the single releases were also important. It's clear that two incredible songs like the warm, charming 'The Face Smiles Back Easily' and the haunting 'Hello Monday' are easily good enough to feature on an album, so one can only presume that the band wanted to save some of the best songs for B sides. Since they were scoring plenty of hit singles at the time, it's understandable.


After 'Falling To The Floor' (a sonically brilliant instrumental remix of 'Hundred Mile High City'), the group return to more mellow territory on the sweet 'The Face Smiles Back Easily', while 'Monday Morning' delivers one of the finest moments in the OCS catalogue. A stripped down acoustic number powered by a stark sombre tone, a spine tingling vocal from Fowler lights up a spellbinding, haunting melody and the yearning emotional power is truly astounding. The mood is a lot lighter on 'Song For The Front Row' as soul colours are put to a bright country-tinged backdrop, before an enjoyable cover of Neil Young's 'On The Way Home' finds Fowler's voice soaring. The sumptuous, laid back instrumental 'All God's Children Need Travelling Shoes' exudes classy elegance and is topped with beautiful acoustic lead guitar, while the calming 'Best Bet On Chinaski' is a simple singalong that could be 'Better Day''s sequel.

The sensual tranquility of 'On And On' glows with hushed moods and sparse instrumentation, preceding the stunning 'Mariner's Way', another highlight that should have made the album. A graceful, humble ballad that flows with a quietly majestic charm, it's up there with their finest songs. The sound of a band at their peak. The weeping guitars and resigned characteristics on the doleful 'Going Nowhere For A While' point towards the more downbeat feel of their next album, 1999's rather sorrowful 'One For The Modern', and in contrast the cheery, slightly Primal Scream-esque 'Expensive Chair' has a chorus that's pure 1966, while the rhythm section seem to reprise the group's early baggy-flavoured direction. 


After the satisfying collection of B sides, we get a fine cover of The Small Faces classic 'Song Of A Baker' which shows that while many have accused them of being derivative, you can always tell the OCS songs apart from the cover versions, even if you've never heard the originals. Three acoustic tracks recorded for an XFM session follow, along with four great live tracks that they played for Mary Anne Hobbs in June 1997, before the second disc is completed by four rather interesting demos that sound like they were recorded during the band's early days.

In addition to the 2CD edition, hardcore fans and collectors can purchase a four disc boxset edition of the album which comes with various bits of memorabilia, a special book, a CD featuring a disappointing, slightly half-arsed live set from Manchester Apollo recorded in February 1998, and a DVD containing the band's huge Stirling Castle gig from the same year. 

A superb number one hit album from an incredible band that gets overlooked way too often, even the b sides contain a touch of magic. If you've never set ears on 'Marchin' Already' then it's time to bring 17 years of ignorance to an end.

8.7/10
Deluxe edition - 8.8/10
4 CD box - 6.5/10



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