The Ocean Blue seem to have been at ebb tide for a very long time indeed, but they’ve never really dried up entirely, just ebbed and flowed since the big wave they made in the early 1990s. The quartet’s latest whitecaps are triggered by their next album, due out this March, that will be their first full-length release in more than 10 years. Originally hailing from Hershey, Pennsylvania (and allied with fellow Hersheyites The Innocence Mission), the band now calls Minneapolis home, and although only lead singer and guitarist David Schelzel and bassist Bobby Mittan remain from their junior high formation in 1986, the current foursome still averages more than 20 years as part of The Ocean Blue.
While the influence of The Smiths can almost not be overstated, the atmospheric guitar work of Oed Ronne (a member since 1993) brought to mind the idea that the group might have morphed from a C-86 Britpop inspired act to become an American response to early 1990s shoegaze evocatuers, Ride.
Propelled by Mittan’s muscular bass and the rhythmic intricacy of veteran drummer Peter Anderson (although a newbie by comparison, he joined in 2000), the quartet sashayed and shambled through approximately 90 minutes of songs new and old, but couldn’t help but focus on the older songs in their discography.
Their most iconic single, with a prominent saxophone hook, “Drifting, Falling” was definitely a highlight, as was the chiming submarine tolling-like lead guitar of “Between Something And Nothing,” their first single, which peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Chart in 1989.
Schelzel’s winsome-but-never-wimpy tenor is always the focus, and his vocal sound (and the spacey guitar parts) brought to mind another product of the intersection of Britpop and shoegaze, Patrick Fitzgerald and Kitchens Of Distinction. However, from a purely sonic perspective, if on album they always sounded like a nexus of The Smiths and The Sundays, live they evoked the spacey 12-string magickery of none other than “So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star”-era Byrds on at least one occasion.
While “Mercury” sounded as though it was straight from The Smiths back catalogue, “Vanity Fair” featured a skiffle beat under its spiraling chorus. While the album version picks up the pace and fades out, live, tonight it ended with a punk-like ferocity. For the last song of their main set, they seemed to have lost their youthful exuberance and their energy seemed to flag significantly—as if the wind came out of their sails.
For an encore Schelzel returned alone to the stage with Allison LaBonne from the opener (and labelmate) The Starfolk, and she sang (after a false start on the wrong note from the guitarist) a moving and credible acoustic version of “Pretty In Pink” originally recorded by The Psychedelic Furs (who The Ocean Blue toured with in 1991). LaBonne has recorded her own version with her duo, Typse Panthre.
Afterwards LaBonne stepped aside and the other three quarters of the quartet returned for “Sublime” from their 1993 album, Beneath The Rhythm and The Sound, but by then they seemed all jangled out.
If there’s any downside to the music of The Ocean Blue, it’s that it’s inoffensive to a fault—there’s no rock ‘n’ roll grit or grime here, but if you were here to see this band, you weren’t expecting anything but lovely jangly guitars and winsome vocals. A keyboard player would have helped flesh out the sound as well, especially as the original compositions feature some beautiful piano parts. But that’s a minor quibble, and if the band today resembles more college professors than college freshmen, they still provided the hypnotized crowd with a dynamic and energetic set.
Openers The Starfolk are fronted by former HangUps frontman and member of The Owls, Brian Tighe, with Stephen Ittner (also of HangUps and The Owls), and features the aforementioned LaBonne (also an Owl) and cellist Jacqueline Ultan (not an Owl). The Starfolk provided an amicable shambling chamber pop approach that stood on its own and reinforced the perception that the HangUps were sadly underrated in their time. The prominent cello was a welcome addition to the typical guitar-bass-drums rock line-up (and would have actually made a nice addition to the Furs cover). At one point during their set, they joked about taking a lot of time to tune and then ironically launched into a number that featured a Sonic Youth-like guitar part on the choruses and had a nice psychedelic instrumental break towards the end.
The eight-song Korda Records Sampler, released in November 2012, features two songs from each of its artists, including two new songs from The Ocean Blue and two from The Starfolk’s full length debut, due out in April.
The Ocean Blue at Schubas Tavern on Jan. 13, 2013
- “Blow My Mind”
- “Ways & Means”
- “Drifting, Falling”
- “When Life Was Easy”
- “New song(s)”
- “I’ve Sung One too Many Songs for a Crowd That Didn’t Want to Hear”
- “Vanity Fair”
- “Ballerina Out of Control”
- “Between Something and Nothing”
- “Pretty in Pink”