We bring great tidings. Birmingham’s emperors of rock’n’folk Ocean Colour Scene are back with their ninth studio album, entitled Saturday.
In the two years since 2007’s On The Leyline – described by Uncut as their “career best” – they’ve played with thrash metal bands in Korea, stolen the show at this year’s ‘V’ (where they were named ‘Band Of The Festival’ by Radio 2 and Absolute Radio) and later this month will jet off for a debut show in Dubai.
In between times, guitarist Steve Cradock has released acclaimed solo debut The Kundalini Target, and played a key role in Paul Weller 22 Dreams, while Simon Fowler’s plans to record a solo album inspired by Sandy Denny and Bert Jansch with acclaimed folk musician John McCusker were only scuppered by an invitation to tour the world with Mark Knopfler (for John, not Simon).
All of which serves as reminder that, as they approach their 21st anniversary together, OCS remain as sincere and passionate about music as they were when this writer first bumped into them on early ‘90’s TV show The Word promoting debut single ‘Sway’. Back then, with their Breton shirts and Beat Club haircuts, they were at the vanguard of a new generation of bands determined to shake off ‘80’s miserablism and get, well, a piece of the action.
Little did anyone know that by the release of their second album Moseley Shoals in April 1996, OCS would be bonafide rock stars, their intuitive grasp of pop dynamics on hits like The Riverboat Song and The Day We Caught The Train leaving an indelible print on the zeitgeist (Moseley Shoals stayed on the charts for eighteen months). Follow up Marchin’ Already (released in September 1997) even knocked Oasis’ Be Here Now off the top spot, prompting Noel Gallagher to send the band a plaque engraved with the inscription: ‘To The Second Best Band In Britain’.
If triumphant appearances at Knebworth and their own sold-out tours (their 1998 arena tour was the biggest by any U.K band that year) have ensured their history has become intertwined with Britpop, the band’s innate ability to craft a tune has guaranteed them a longevity only matched by Primal Scream and fellow Midlanders, The Charlatans.
Any turbulence experienced in the wake of original bassist Damon Minchella’s departure in 2003, meanwhile, has been countered by the astute recruitment of guitarist Andy Bennett and bassist Dan Sealey, both of whom contribute songs to Saturday.
“We’ve always been the sort of band who like to share our ideas,” explains Steve. “I remember Ian Brown saying that what spoiled it for him with The Roses was that John Squire would bring songs in fully formed. It keeps things exciting knowing that everybody is bringing something to the table. That working relationship gels a band together, it’s a collaborative spirit.”
Put it down, then, to re-charged batteries or the confidence which comes from having a settled line-up, but Saturday finds the band as vibrantly tuneful as they’ve ever been. Recorded over six weeks last Summer at the iconic Rockfield studios in South Wales with producer Gavin Monaghan (Editors/the Twang), it’s a return to the barnstorming OCS of yore.
“Gavin was keen to make a classic OCS record,” says Steve. “That gave us a direction for where we wanted the album to go. We did some demos at his studio which meant we had most of the songs ready before we headed for Rockfield.”
From the opening bars of psych-folk opener ‘100 Floors Of Perception’ - written by Simon about the on-going financial crisis - to epic climax ‘Rockfield’ (think ‘Baba O’Riley’ meets ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’), it’s a reminder than when it comes to delivering classic rock hooks there is simply no one better. Denim-driven boogie ‘Old Pair Of Jeans’ (written by Bennett) will delight those hankering for the full-tilt mod-pop of ‘For Dancers Only’, while 'Harry Kidnap’ (written in tribute to John Weller) boasts shades of North Atlantic Drift stand-out ‘Make The Deal’.
Lyrical themes ranging from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (‘Mrs Maylie’) to the British way of life (standout ‘Village Life’), meanwhile, are a reminder of Simon’s acute observational eye.
“I live in a small village in the Cotswolds which has a few local pubs, a village green and an acupuncturist - there’s even a Maypole,” he explains. “I tend to write the lyrics while out walking, so you naturally take in what’s around you. It’s the sort of place where everybody knows how many pints you had last night. Which can be good or bad, of course. But I love it.”
Musically, it’s just as impressive. Listen close and you’ll hear echoes of everyone from Simon & Garfunkel to Mott The Hoople and Vivaldi in these loose-limbed grooves, not to mention trippy string sections, sky-scraping ‘Great Gig In The Sky’ backing vocals, punk riffs and even the occasional burst of mandolin.
"I had a little battery operated record player in my room while we were recording” says Steve. “I’d listen to everything from classical stuff to Eastern European folk music. Then I’d go into the studio in a pissed stupor and play a punk song like ‘Postal’!”
Surefire smash ‘Magic Carpet Days’, meanwhile (key lyric: “The world won’t shake you/Knock you down and break you/I’ll steer you through these magic carpet days”) is a reminder that their belief in the Mod aesthetic of self-improvement remains as strong as ever.
“I think that’s how you’ve got to look at life when you’re 44,” grins Simon. “We’re not getting any younger, but that enthusiasm will never leave us I don’t think. Especially when we’ve got a few glasses of pop inside us.”
If the album’s working title - Blue Sky Drinking - tells you something of Saturday’s feel-good spirit, it’s also proof that even as the reach the age of maturity, OCS aren’t prepared to grow up just yet.
“Me and Steve are very different in many respects, but we do both like laughing a lot,” adds Simon. “And that’s what keeps us having fun. It’s our 21st year in 2010 so we want to get out there and remind people we’re still here.”