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Guster – On the Ocean EP

on July 28, 2011, 7:58am

Guster’s On the Ocean EP is a collection of live performances and B-sides from their 2010 album, Easy Wonderful. Released after the fact, then, it would perhaps be best to judge its six songs as what they are: a cut-together collection of odds and ends.

A collection of songs it is, though, and Guster has made it clear that they don’t want these tracks to be viewed as throwaways: “B-sides, while seemingly the rejected bastard children of an album, are often some [of] our favorite material that just didn’t fit into the sequence of a record.” In their honor, then, we will treat this as an album all of its own rather than as an offshoot of other work.

With that in mind, the following needs to be said: Live tracks don’t work very effectively in the middle of albums. Mostly because they are placed on collections as reference points (a live version of a song is rarely good in its own right, but appeals to existing fans, surely?) it’s hard for them to impress without the context of fandom, and if On the Ocean is going to appeal in its own right, it needs seductive powers, a way to pull in new listeners. Live tracks just won’t do that, even if they’re of a band’s more famous songs; “Satellite” is one of the two here, plus “That’s No Way to Get to Heaven”.

They don’t appeal here. But on the plus side, the studio tracks certainly do. Opener “On the Ocean” is a lovely track, its chorus so nicely sung, the words “A storm is on the way, but I will hold on anyway” so wonderfully exhaled, like an afterthought. At times its lyrics are a little trite–the opening line is “Am I asleep?/Is this a dream?/Oh my god, what have I done?/Anything?”–but on the whole, the song, pulsing along nicely in a way that’s reminiscent of bands like Tears for Fears, Simple Minds, and New Order, is a real success. It’s followed by “Big White Bed”, which makes up for some of the lyrical slights of its predecessor, a bouncing, pastiche-heavy, acoustic guitar-led track that has great lines like “Everybody that you’ve ever known is gonna die, don’t cry; there’s a big white bed in heaven” and “There’s nothing you can say or do that’s gonna save your life; it’s alright, there’s a big white bed up in heaven.” Slightly saccharine, certainly a little funny, and in a way touching, the juxtaposition of these fatalistic sentiments of the mildly farcical big white bed, combined with a recurring horn-led refrain, is seriously refreshing,

Of the remaining two tracks, it’s lead singer Ryan Miller’s remix of Easy Wonderful’s “This is How It Feels to Have a Broken Heart” that stands out, with the slightly weak “Every Moment”, the third studio track, coming in last.

What we have here, then, is an EP of two very strong tracks, a half-decent remix of an album release, and live versions of two of Guster’s songs. Can we really judge it on its merits as Guster has asked? Probably not. With 50% of On the Ocean comprising previously released material, albeit in modified form, it seems that their intentions and their actions are a little out of sync. As a result, it feels a little disjointed and sometimes sparse. Nonetheless, for the first two tracks alone, this is worth the investment.

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