Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Songs To Learn And Sing #22

Onwards with our survey of those songs you must know about, and here's organisation on our part. We've already had half of the Indie Credential duo on day 7, so more than two weeks later it's the turn of JustHipper:

The Ocean Blue - Ballerina Out Of Control

When I was a teenager growing up in the deep southern United States we did not have many places to find new and unusual bands. There was college radio, and in Atlanta, college radio, namely the Georgia State University station, was pretty good, which in college radio terms meant about 15% of what they played was actually listenable (although not necessarily worth hearing). Then there was MTV.

Now at the time, MTV had one really great show called 120 Minutes which was for American teenagers what John Peel was for British teenagers. Sadly, it was on at a ridiculous time (I can’t remember if it started or finished at 2am, but it was late) on a Sunday night and it was hosted by an English guy named Dave Kendal. At 16 or 17 years old when I first discovered it, I could only watch it when I was on school holidays. I used to sneak into the lounge on those precious nights in the hope of finding something new and exciting. I found the likes of The Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets, Blur and other essential bands from my youth through 120 Minutes. On one spectacular night, however, in about 1991, I saw the videos for Get The Message by Electronic and Ballerina Out of Control by The Ocean Blue back-to-back. The Electronic video was exciting for what I hope are obvious reasons, but I was mesmerised by the lushness of the Ocean Blue track and its video full of spinning ballet dancers and soft lighting. The name of the band and the song burned themselves into my head. I did not, unfortunately, have the cash to buy the album so that was that. A full three years passed before I heard the track again and it was as wonderful as I’d first remembered it.

The Ocean Blue are an American band, from Philadelphia or thereabouts if I remember correctly, who were in awe of the British bands of their time. Had they been British I suspect they’d have filled a bill with the likes of The Mighty Lemon Drops, The Railway Children, The Field Mice and even bands like Lush or Slowdive. As things stood, however, they were swimming firmly against the tide in the US, they never made it over the ocean and their tiny audience was a small pocket of American indie kids who were obsessed with any music coming out of the UK and any music that sounded like it was influenced by any music coming out of the UK, myself included. They released three albums to not much fanfare before the lead singer left acrimoniously. I thought they had split after releasing one final album, but it seems they've been recording continually for the last decade and they recently toured Peru. While the first two records are a relaxing enough listen, Ballerina Out Of Control is their perfect pop moment. I had nearly forgotten about the band entirely until I started using eBay last year to start replacing all the old cassette gems in my collection with CDs, which is the point at which I purchased a near-pristine copy of their sophomore album, Cerulean.

The greatness of a song can often be measured by the fact that even going seven or eight years between listens as trends move on and your tastes change it still sounds as remarkable as the first time you heard it. Certainly, when I first played the CD it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

The subject matter, lyrically, is simple yet universal. The track is ostensibly about a troubled girl who spends her nights dancing, trying to forget her problems. I imagine anyone who has come home from a bad day to open a bottle of wine, or head off to a club or a gig to wind down can probably relate to the idea. When problems become too large, all you want is a distraction. Musically the song conjures up the image in the title, of a ballerina spinning and spinning around to the sweeping, fluid, lush sound of the guitars but her dancing is manic, insistent, because it's desperate. Despite the soothing grace of the melody there is an urgency in the background, driven by the repetitive bass and rhythm guitar parts which insinuate the tension of the subject. For her the "world came crashing down" but the reaction is that the "night becomes the day" so she throws off her daily worries, looks forward to her evenings where she can "twist and twirl and dance[s] it all away" yet "the problems persist, they won't go away." At night, dancing, she can forget the problems which plague her days but nobody can dance forever so behind the melodic calm is a nervous tension that cannot and will not be resolved which drives the melody and the lyrics forward. Much like the problems which will not go away, however, the ending of the song brings no solution, only reality.

Ballerina Out of Control is a brilliant three minutes and forty-five seconds of jangly melodic pop which deserves rescuing from the vaults of early-nineties indie obscurity and a place in the hall of perfect one-hit wonders.

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