Ocean Colour Scene

North Atlantic Drift

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Part of the problem of being a traditionalist band is that you emerge with a sound that sounds fairly mature from the outset -- by emulating classic bands at their peak, you wind up sounding older than your years and, no matter how hard you fight it, a little bit stodgy. Then, because you hold the classic rock tradition so dear, you wind up becoming bound to it, rarely exploring new territory and, even then, it's usually just new tonal, textural, and emotional ground, which is so subtle that only dedicated fans will notice -- which, of course, is the only kind of fan that will pay attention through several similar-sounding records. This fate has befallen many bands, both British and American, many lesser than Ocean Colour Scene, who at least were fortunate enough to ride the post-Oasis zeitgeist in the mid-'90s, which meant they not only had some hits, but that they could cultivate a reasonably large fan base and that the best of their songs -- "The Riverboat Song," "The Day We Caught the Train," "Hundred Mile High City," "Travellers Tune" -- became part of the pop culture of the time. Once that time passed and "Noelrock" became passé, OCS still trudged on, delivering journeymen-like records to a steadily decreasing audience (admittedly, they were hurt by a record deal that kept their records from regular release in the U.S.). By the point they released their sixth studio album, North Atlantic Drift, in late summer 2003, it seemed like only the faithful would care, which is too bad, because it's the best record they've done in a long time. Like any trad rock band, there isn't a great progression in the sound -- it sounds like it could have been the sequel to Marchin' Already, or even Moseley Shoals -- but the production isn't nearly as claustrophobic as it was on its predecessor, 2001's Mechanical Wonder, nor are the performances as mannered. Here, the tone is brighter and the sound is subtly, appealingly layered, while the band displays not only a willingness to stretch out (the extended coda on the closer, "When Evil Comes," is suitably atmospheric), but a renewed vigor in songwriting. Once again, the best of their songs -- and there are a lot of good songs on this record -- are sharp, impassioned, tuneful, and sturdy, gaining resonance after each play. To complain that they offer little new to the OCS sound is to miss the point: They're supposed to fit within the sound, and they not only do that, but they hold their own against the best of the band's material. Since the group seemed to be slipping into pleasant genericness with Mechanical Wonder, this revival is to be embraced, since it means that once again Ocean Colour Scene embodies all the virtues of trad rock, making a very enjoyable album in the process. [Sanctuary's 2003 U.S. edition of North Atlantic Drift contains four bonus tracks, all of a similar high standard, with the standout track being the spare, rollicking "I Want to See the Bright Lights."]

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