Formed in Hershey, Pennsylvania by high school friends who shared a fondness for new wave and post-punk, the Ocean Blue fused their influences — the Smiths, the Teardrop Explodes, R.E.M. — into a likable debut. The college radio hit “Between Something and Nothing” (which smacks of “Lips Like Sugar”-era Echo and the Bunnymen) sets the tone for the whole affair: 12 pleasant tracks just inspired enough. With polished production by Mark Opitz (except for two tracks handled by John Porter, who also did the Smiths’ debut), tunes like “Drifting, Falling” and the chugging “Vanity Fair,” all with lyrics by singer/guitarist David Schelzel, are very if-you-like-then-try… Perfectly pleasant, but no great shakes.
Cerulean benefits from meatier sound and stronger, if inconsistent, songwriting. The coloring book imagery of “Marigold” seems better suited to Book of Love; “Questions of Travel,” with its repeated refrain of “Americans dreaming…” (of various exotic locales), comes off way too precious. But memorable tracks — the swirling “Ballerina Out of Control,” “Breezing Up,” the sweeping title cut — outweigh the mediocre ones. A marked improvement.
The self-produced Beneath the Rhythm and Sound lacks the outside opinion it clearly needed; a more seasoned set of hands could’ve brought “Sublime” (which pleads for multi-tracked backing vocals) and “Either/Or” (which suggests the band had been living with a copy of the Chills’ Submarine Bells) to much fuller fruition. Attached to fewer hooks than on the second album, Schelzel’s increasingly opaque, simplistic lyrics dominate the forefront, setting his consistently flat singing (never a noticeable problem before) front and center throughout, except on “Bliss Is Unaware,” where he takes a back seat to keyboardist Steve Lau’s Haircut One Hundred-style sax riff.
Peace and Light is a four-song EP of new/old live/studio cuts, and the band’s last release for Sire. After his decision to come out of the closet generated friction with his outspokenly Christian bandmates, Lau left the quartet, eventually becoming a record company executive. With his replacement, Oeddie Ronne, the Ocean Blue signed a new deal with Mercury and made See the Ocean Blue, their fourth album.
The musical landscape had undergone many changes between 1989 and 1996, and the harder sounds of the mid-’90s made the Ocean Blue’s genteel guitar pop feel dated and quaint. With See the Ocean Blue, the band attemptedto adapt. On several songs, most notably “My Scream,” “Bitter” and “Bite Your Lip,” the guitars crunch more than chime and the album as a whole boasts a fuller, meatier sound. This is the hardest rocking album the Ocean Blue has ever released, but at heart they’re still the same band. There’s no way a choirboy like Schelzel is ever going to transform into a brute; even rocking out, the band does it in a refined and polite way. Ronne takes lead vocals on his O-B songwriting debut, “Behind,” and if anything his voice here is even more delicate and angelic than Schelzel’s.
With Davy Jones’ Locker, the Ocean Blue decided to pretend the ’90s (and the harder sound of See) never happened, returning to the ringing guitar sound. This is a reasonable impulse — the post-REM jangle pop of the late-’80s has spent a longer time in exile than the style deserves, and the Ocean Blue was among its better practitioners. The intricate guitar line and uncluttered sound of the leadoff “Ayn” announce a return to the style of Beneath the Rhythm and Sound. Ronne contributes two tracks — the instrumental “Cukaloris” and “Consolation Prize” — which show his voice progressing to a lightweight Morrissey. There’s nothing especially great about Davy Jones’ Locker, but it’s as effortlessly enjoyable as anything else the band has ever done.
Waterworks is instructive, as the EP’s six songs are split evenly between Schelzel and Ronne, with the latter coming out on top. Schelzel’s contributions here are more of the same well-crafted, pleasant guitar pop; however, his songs, especially “Golden Gate,” have become so wispy and gossamer that he must have needed ankleweights to keep from floating out of the studio. Ronne’s songs are more straightforward and grounded, with “Ticket to Wyoming” and “Sunshower” nudging the Ocean Blue even further into Smiths territory. At seven-minutes-plus, his semi-instrumental “The Northern Jetstream,” an atmospheric combination of jangling guitars and wordless vocals, overstays its welcome by a ways. Whether the equal division of labor on Waterworks reflects a new reality for the Ocean Blue or if it’s just how the songs shook out for the EP remains to be seen. But for now, having two capable songwriters and vocalists has worked out well for the band.