Ultimate Painting is James Hoare of Veronica Falls and Jack Cooper of Mazes. They delve into their shared influences, to create a loose, natural and confident sound. They released their self titled debut in October 2014, on Chicago’s Trouble In Mind label, receiving great accolade. I first came across their track ‘Ultimate Painting’ just before Christmas and it made my ears melt. On their website it read, “Ultimate Painting is a band from the earth”. Spot on – their music sounds like is has been dormant since the beginning of time, and they have just unearthed it. Their smart lyrics and intricate guitar interplay, creates a truly infectious sound. I caught up with the band before their fantastic performance at Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar when they supported White Fence.
Four years is a long time to keep fans waiting for an album, especially if the last thing you left them with was as good as ‘The King Is Dead’. The last album from The Decemberists was a fine slice of Americana that drew great reviews and found its way to the coveted Number One spot in the US charts. Whether this somewhat unexpected commercial success weighed on Colin Meloy and his band, causing them to deliberate over The King’s follow up, is anyone’s guess. But one thing is clear: at 14 songs and a running time of around 50 minutes, they didn’t want to short-change anyone.
On first listen, it’s apparent that there’s more emphasis on pop on ‘What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World’ – and no small amount of craft and fine tuning involved in its creation. The majority of its songs come as lean, mean, well-considered three minute pop constructions.
That is not to say that everything on offer appears in radio-ready bite-sized chunks. The album is expertly bookended by two of its longer tracks, kicking off with ‘The Singer Addresses His Audience’ – a slow builder which sees the band accelerate to full tilt towards its climax, counterpointed with staccato slabs of stabbing strings. ‘A Beginning Song’ is a wonderful note to go out on, a fascinating examination of self-doubt, “I am waiting, should I be waiting? I am wanting, should I be wanting?” that gives way to a celebration of all the positives in Meloy’s life:
“When all around me… is the sunlight, is the shadows, is the quiet, is the work, is the beating heart, is the ocean, is the boys, is you, my sweet love, oh my love. And the light, the bright light is all around me.”
It’s powerful, moving and honest writing – the above section providing a wonderful coming together of the song’s lyrical thread and the band’s performance.
The album’s flow in the main is excellent – in fact, the order from track seven, ‘The Wrong Year’, through to the very end is nigh on faultless. There’s a lovely rhythm, evolving of styles and cohesion that is only marginally disrupted by ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’, which feels a bit incongruent with its obvious nod to The Doors’ ‘People Are Strange’. It’s a cool song, though, with articulate, playful lyrics, and it sits neatly between ‘Anti-Summersong’ and ‘Mistral’, so maybe I’m being overly picky.
A special mention must go to ‘12/17/12’ – a song written after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings – comparing that horror with Meloy’s own peachy life, “Oh my God, What a world you have made here. What a terrible world, what a wonderful world. What a world you have made here.” It captures the conflict of emotion, his feelings about the twisting, turning and forever spinning world so concisely. To say so much in so few words is a rare skill.
There is an openness to much of the writing, with less fanciful and fantastical story-telling than previous efforts. Instead, we are offered windows on self-reflection and conflict (as touched on above), as well as wistful nostalgia (‘Philomena’ and ‘Lake Song’) and awareness of responsibilities (‘Better Not Wake The Baby’). Whilst some of it is tongue-in-cheek fun, (‘Philomena’ springs to mind) the properly good stuff feels very tangible and real.
Still, it’s not all roses. The middle of the album sags – despite its gypsy jazz touches, ‘Till the Water’s All Long Gone’ is quite dull, and ‘Lake Song’ is just plain poor – such an obvious rip-off of Nick Drake’s classic, ‘Pink Moon’ is disappointing. Thankfully, there aren’t too many negatives aside from this – Boo Radleys fans will like Cavalry Captain, others might find it a bit lightweight, although it still has some great moments (such as the call and response bridges).
There’s certainly a lot more that works here than doesn’t. ‘Make You Better’ and ‘The Wrong Year’ feel like indie classics and are amongst the most instant songs on the album. There is a wealth of expertly written material which subtly spans a range of styles as the record unfolds: ‘Carolina Low’ (Traditional Folk), ‘Anti-Summersong’ (Indie Folk), ‘Mistral’ (Americana)… the list goes on. This album sees harmonica taking over from lap steel’s prominence on ‘The King Is Dead’, making a telling appearance in ‘12/17/12’, and stealing the show with a colourful solo in ‘Anti-Summersong’. To top it all off is the combination of voices, and well-conceived and executed backing vocals that in turn lift songs, provide texture or counterpoints and most of all, moments of real splendour and beauty.
It’s fair to say that The Decemberists have delivered with ‘What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World’ – a mature album (which we should expect from a band with so much experience) that’s made with real song-writing knowhow. Its last three tracks provide such a strong finish that it gives great grounds for optimism for future recordings, or in my case, a real sense of excitement and anticipation of seeing them live at the Brighton Dome on the 20th February (which I’ll also be reviewing). I truly hope we don’t have to wait another four years for the next release.
Finally, her debut album. A work that does not feature any of her previous output, and yet remains unmistakably hers, such are the icy textures of her distinctive voice, and a largely moody sound that largely favours the flavours of timeless folk, modern electronics, and choral symphonics.
We are a record label (Tru Thoughts) and a publishing company (Full Thought Publishing), and we do the
majority of marketing from our office, too. So, a big part of our week is planning and actually releasing the music,
and publishing and licensing music to TV, film and adverts.
For someone responsible for the indie anthems Alright, Caught By The Fuzz, Sun Hits The Sky and Grace, to the casual listener Supergrass seemed to epitomise sunny youthful optimism. To such a degree, in fact, that Stephen Spielberg once invited the band to become a 90s version of the interminably wacky The Monkees. But, dig a little deeper, you'll find that Coombes and Supergrass weren't always that insatiably upbeat. For instance, one of the biggest hits, Moving, articulates feelings of desperation and desolation. There was always a lot more to the band than which immediately met the eye…