Record Reviews

Review: The Ocean Party – Mess & Noise Critics Poll 2015

The Ocean Party may have called their previous album Light Weight, but they’re carrying around an awful lot of baggage. Beginning as an uncommonly honest band in a crowded pool of Melbourne guitar-pop bands, they’ve spent their last couple LPs adding synths and other gauzy ’80s touches while sharpening their songwriting even as they’ve made it more subtle. With the addition of bassist Mark Rogers (Haircut), they’ve now got six contributing songwriters and vocalists, none of whom are shy about airing their anxieties.

We only hear four of those six on this stopgap EP, whose title laments this very website’s recent dormancy and, more specifically, a poll never taken. But it still feels representative of where The Ocean Party are at in 2016, not just in terms of releases (they’re clearing out non-album tracks in between their fifth and sixth full-lengths) but in terms of style. The music is smooth on the surface but more turbulent beneath, and their lyrics dwell on desperation more all the time.

“A quarter of my life went by/I hardly noticed,” sings Liam Halliwell on ‘Fun’, later opining, “I’m fading out again/Just like I always have” on ‘No Local’. The Wagga Wagga natives have steadily encroached into such bleak self-assessment, even as their once lackadaisical jangle has given way to a more forceful presence live (the result of near-constant touring) and a nostalgic pop vibe that’s all about coming unravelled. On opener ‘Cool Boys’, amid layered guitars and synths, Curtis Wakeling sings about putting his fist through a wall, among other bodily tolls. The music is deceptively spritely – there’s even hand drumming near the end – but still with the nagging feeling of youthful brightness now tarnished.

There’s also the feeling, as always, that these guys would be doing this whether they had an audience or not. They’ve all got solo or side projects or multiple other bands, spanning an especially tangled family tree, but this band is where they come to roost, and where they often air their strongest songwriting. Amid the charming obscurity of outlets like Velcro or Ciggie Witch, The Ocean Party is their shared band, the one that’s signed to Spunk and tours the US.

There’s also the feeling, as always, that these guys would be doing this whether they had an audience or not.

Against Chills-esque keyboard flourishes, the band’s once-primary frontman, Lachlan Denton, goes especially dark on ‘Fight, Fight, Fight, Die’, repeating the lose-lose proposition “wrong body or wrong mind” while twinkling melodies are driven to the brink of dissolution. Aligning themselves with the suavely packaged ennui of Roxy Music – the standalone intro of ‘Hail’ evokes that of ‘More Than This’, while the bass line of dance-friendly instrumental ‘Rivers’ isn’t far removed from ‘Love Is the Drug’ – The Ocean Party soundtrack their personal crises in a way that’s easy on the ear but hard on the heart, at least for those who pay attention to the lyrics. By the end of ‘Sea Breeze’, Denton’s brother Zac has frayed completely, cursing and finishing with the clipped pronouncement “I am real.”

Despite the odds-and-sods premise, the only songs that don’t feel like they might make the cut on an Ocean Party album are the two atmospheric but inconsequential instrumentals (well, three, counting a brief secret track at the end). And even those would make sense as a mid-LP refresher. But it’s difficult to imagine a song as solid and urgent as ‘No Local’ – towed along by a punchy bass line and serrated with scratchy guitar – not being worthy of a proper album. It’s one of Halliwell’s best songs to date, roiling with stream-of-consciousness bitterness (“Fashion is criminal, location is everything/Progressive newspaper doesn’t exist/Retired rock star returns from retirement”) yet hinging on this quietly devastating realisation: “The best years of my life were being no one.”

As non-album detours go, Mess & Noise Critics Poll 2015 is an imperfect but telling listen. It doesn’t hold together as well as the band’s albums, or showcase all of their usual songwriters, but it crystallises a lot of what’s appealing about these guys. If there are still any corners of Australia where The Ocean Party are considered happy-go-lucky janglers rather than gimlet-eyed chroniclers of inner-suburbs malaise, this stands as a convincing corrective. Right down to that title, these guys are never better than when documenting what’s missing in their lives.

Tracklisting:

Cool Boys
Fight, Fight, Fight, Die
No Local
Hail
Rivers
Sea Breeze
Fun
Pleasure Ghost