Ocean Colour Scene is one of the most significant bands in the British rock scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Protected and supported by the likes of Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller, the band released Moseley Shoals, its most commercially successful and critically acclaimed record, on MCA in 1996. Before Moseley Shoals, Ocean Colour Scene had charted singles and albums during the Stone Roses-era of the “Madchester” scene, but this album was different: It was a rebirth and triumph for a band many had written off as burnt out and plagued by label disputes and internal creative turmoil.
Nearly 10 years later, after a steady string of well-received releases, Ocean Colour Scene has dropped North Atlantic Drift, the group’s first release on Sanctuary Records. While it fits snugly into the category of traditionalist British rock, North Atlantic Drift offers none of the hunger or tension that characterized Moseley Shoals. Instead, the band comes off as a cross between Phish and Oasis. Crunchy guitar riffs a la Oasis’s “Fuckin’ in the Bushes” start off opener “I Just Need Myself,” but the song quickly devolves into jam-rock, punctuated by the lazy vocals one normally associates with the likes of, well, Phish.
Ocean Colour Scene’s previous releases have borrowed richly from the pioneers who came before, leading some to label the band as classic rock. In many of their songs, bluesy Stones riffs mesh seamlessly with solo-era Weller R&B influences, and classic pop sounds rock alongside a loose, funky performance style. There’s a danger with such a formula and unfortunately, North Atlantic Drift falls victim to it. What can begin as spontaneous excitement quickly turns into pointless noodling, and many of the songs on North Atlantic Drift stall before ever taking off.
Lyrically, vocalist Simon Fowler seems to recognize his band’s dilemma. In many of North Atlantic Drift‘s songs, he confronts the underdog theme straight on, asking: “Is it too late for comebacks?” If we’re to judge by North Atlantic Drift, the clock has almost run out for Ocean Colour Scene. The group’s only shot for continued relevance is the album’s last song, “When Evil Comes,” a neo-British, Radiohead-esque caterwaul of guitars, howling vocals and engine-room cacophony. It’s a satisfactorily complete song, providing an emotional release lacking from songs such as “On My Way” and “For Every Corner.”
North Atlantic Drift is certainly a solid album, but it’s nothing new. You have to ask why, after almost 15 years, Ocean Colour Scene hasn’t gotten an inclination to try a new direction. Certainly they are talented musicians; one can only wonder what might happen were they to expand from their comfort zone.