Review: Ultrasound – Play For Today
Published on September 10th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
A mere thirteen years on from their fondly remembered debut album Everything Picture, Ultrasound deliver a second LP’s worth of high-drama, high-octane, occasionally high-on-life pop music. At times Play For Today feels shackled by its own distinctly retro production – basically, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid if someone told you it was recorded in the ’90s – but it more frequently thrills by virtue of its undeniable songwriting savvy, not to mention performances from each of the band members sufficiently explosive to reflect the discord that led to such a prolonged hiatus.
Opener “Welfare State” gets underway with The X-Files keys and rides its elegantly cascading chord changes into a rollicking epic of a comeback gambit. Tiny’s voice is in commanding form, as it is across the album; its grounded quality and the accompanying everyman lyricism (eg. “We are the ones / The sons of mums”, “No-one ever cared about us” and a reference to Jeremy Kyle) rein in the air of OTT-ness just enough for it all to come over like a cross between Dodgy and My Life Story, with just a dash of Pulp.
As an album opener “Welfare State” brings to mind “Weeds” from Pulp’s severely underappreciated last album We Love Life: a rousing paean to the oppressed masses, you know, that sort of thing, and the fact that it segues into a wilderness of psychedelic feedback. Unlike the transition from “Weeds” to “Weeds II (The Origin of the Species)”, Ultrasound do it all on the same track and slap a reprise on it too.
“Oh broken superhero / Something leads you to the darker side” observes the ensuing “Beautiful Sadness”, wielding a keyboard lick in its verse that does indeed evoke The Stranglers classic “No More Heroes” and a lush, energised chorus that introduces the more euphoric aspects of Play For Today‘s sound. The harmony-drenched “Twins” is a graceful yet gritty Britpop anthem of the first order, while “Nonsense”, incidentally the only track here under four minutes, is like a jangly Elbow performing a great lost Kinks song from the late ’60s. It’s blissed out, alright, and there’s organs too.
“Between Two Rivers” takes a stately brass section, gives it away to a brooding acoustic strum and becomes a portentous chant about “two rivers made of rain” and “political campaigns”, reinforcing the disenfranchisement that underpins this collection of songs; blistering rocker “Goodbye Baby, Amen” continues this with “Life is like a game of chess, nothing more… There’s nothing to believe in any more”, allowing “Deus Ex Natura” to soothe with its graceful, gentle, healing trot…which then stirs up again as the chorus enters stormier waters, Tiny singing about “nostalgia…the yearning for old”.
“Long Way Home” could be straight off The Stranglers’ Giants album of earlier this year, “Glitter Box” sounds like an apocalyptic Bond theme with its cinematic synth pads and splendid lead vocal turn from bassist Vanessa Best, before “Sovereign” brings proceedings to a close with mesmerising comedown fare as if Elbow had broken through during the mid-’90s.
“Appearing on a game show could be the greatest thing we do” sings Best on “Glitter Box”, a likely unintentional reference to Ultrasound’s fifteen minutes of fame the last time around; Play For Today is not without its limitations but is at its core sophisticated enough to result in some truly spectacular moments, and for that it is at once a welcome return to the fold and, with any luck, a passport to more than a mere game show.
Rocksucker says: Three and a Half Quails out of Five!
Play For Today bill be released on 24th September via Fierce Panda. Ultrasound will play an album launch party at the Scala in King’s Cross on 4th October. For more information please visit ultrasoundtheband.com