Review Summary: One big compromise between their first and second records; call it Logical Feathers, if you want.
French-Canadians the Stills have always been one of my favorite bands to emerge from the post-punk scene in the early millennium, and easily my favorite from Montreal (sorry, Arcade Fire). They lacked the dance-punk fever of the Rapture, they didn’t go heavy on the eyeliner like Interpol, and they didn’t act like they were the saviors of rock like the Strokes, but their fuzzy brand of Television-esque guitar rock and singer Tim Fletcher’s strong, emotive vocals made 2003’s Logic Will Break Your Heart a masterpiece of catchy, thoughtful new wave rock. Drummer Dave Hamelin’s switch to vocals and lead guitar on follow-up Without Feathers surprised many, and the record was intentionally polarizing; it’s Americana (Canadiana?), 70’s big rock sound was a 180-degree shift away from Logic’s Smiths-ian sound. Oceans Will Rise, then, is the sound of a band trying to fit something in between those two extremes, an attempt that comes out sounding exactly like what it is: a compromise.
On Oceans Will Rise, the Stills shift the focus back towards Fletcher on lead, although Hamelin pipes in on a few tunes. Leadoff song “Don’t Talk Down” opens promisingly with a stuttering drumbeat and a simple riff before expanding on the theme with piano and a touch of horror-show synths and Hamelin’s angry vocals. However, the song quickly turns repetitive, and Hamelin’s weak lyrics soften its “screw-you-ex” attitude.
“Snow In California” takes a page from Logic’s playbook, a tasty melding of pounding drums and ringing guitars that float and bubble at all the right places, and Fletcher is in fine form on vocals. “Being Here,” the album’s first single, is an appropriately anthemic song that mimics Without Feather’s crashing guitars and a chorus that is bound to stick in your head for days, but the song is so lyrically uninspired and formulaic that it just comes off as bland arena-rock. It is unfortunately followed by “Everything I Build,” Ocean’s requisite slow song and one that is not only boring but also attempts to build into a climax that inexplicably ends before anything remotely cathartic can occur.
The second half is all in all on a much higher level than the first half, surprising from a band that has tended to make their albums top-heavy in the past. “Panic” scuttles along on a complicated, jittery drum rhythm and tinkling guitar picking that frames the paranoid theme quite well. “Eastern Europe” has one of the best riffs on the record and is pure punk fury, sharp cymbals and gyrating guitars led along by some of Fletcher's most inspired singing yet. And despite “I’m With You”’s tendency to wax sappy, Hamelin's vocals just earnest enough and the melody is just poppy enough to make it one of the Stills’ great love songs.
While most of Oceans Will Rise is musically similar to either of their first two albums, the few songs where they stretch their boundaries are some of the best. “Snakecharming The Masses” is what Tim Fletcher must have meant when he said that the group felt “a raw energy of inspiration” during recording. It fits its title admirably with a tribal drum pattern and an Eastern vibe that matches the song’s undeniably fierce attitude with minor instrumentation. “Rooibos/Palm Wine Drinkard,” meanwhile, builds up energy in a guitar rave-up that descends into a lilting jam (are those calypso drums I hear?). The best song on the album, “Dinosaurs,” is what this album should have been more of; excellent drum work and atmospheric synths coupled with truly great spiraling guitar and some choice lyrics; call it Logical Feathers, if you want.
I, for one, loved Without Feathers just as much as I enjoyed Logic, and thought the band was truly progressing in a way many early-2000s post-punk bands failed to do. Oceans Will Rise shows glimpses of the Stills’ continued ability to evolve, such as the excellent “Dinosaurs” or the touching closer “Statue of Sirens” (which does much better what “Everything I Build” tried to do), but their tendency to fall back on the styles of the past makes much of Oceans a re-tread of their earlier work. While it probably won’t be as divisive as Without Feathers and it certainly isn’t as buzzworthy as Logic, it’s a solid, albeit smaller, step forward, and one that bodes well for the Stills’ future.