Thursday 23 April 2009

Review: Foamy Lather by Ultralash

I wrote the words below whilst on the reviewing team at MOG. But it was recently brought to my attention that my review, as it appears on MOG following that site's redesign, is now practically unreadable.

So here's a neatened up version.

There's not enough written about the band in question – Ultralash – on the web. So I figured that what there is should be easily accessible. For this is a fine band.

So: the review.

Imagine a lo-fi, countrified, battery-operated Portishead.

Right? Easy. Now, add a dusting of insouciant Damon Albarn (bear with me), the alt-rock nursery-rhyme quality of Eels, and, finally, a seasoning of late 80s/early 90s synth-pop.

Got that?

Possibly not. But I've made one point, at least: Ultralash is quite an unusual-sounding outfit.

Lads' mag alt-folk?

It's an odd name, for starters. Ultralash! Here in the UK, at least (I know not how universal the slang phrase "on the lash" may be), it could pass for the title of a lads' mag, or an 'edgy' Channel 4 documentary focusing on underage drinking and club culture.

I have to say that the sound of this record is nothing like my idea of a band called Ultralash. Which is not – I might add – necessarily a bad thing.

This is an experimental album – not trendy, not a la mode. Its roots are in American folk – but this record is 'folk' in its broadest, least generic sense. The slightly ramshackle, rough-edged juxtapositions of electronic and acoustic elements – trundling samples against fingerpicked guitar – is suggestive of the alt-country genre. I hear echoes of Grandaddy's fascination with organicised technology (although Ultralash is sparser, far less lush and accessible) and, more distinctly, of Sparklehorse – particularly the use of distorted, choppy mechanical loops, and the practice of interspersing short, sample-based interlude tracks amongst the album's longer songs.

Avoiding the cliches

For a record with its heart in folk/country, Foamy Lather avoids just about every potential cliche of those genres. Often, vocals take a subordinate role in these songs: sketchy, distant in the mix, effects-laden and detached. At times, reminiscent of PJ Harvey's excellent White Chalk.

Unlike White Chalk, though, this is a beat-suffused album. The dirty, roomy kit sound of opener 'Like a Daisy' is meaty and confidently simple: alongside the distorted, off-key bass, it's the backbone of the track, rather than a nuanced accompaniment. Rhythms, samples and loops frequently and emphatically take centre-stage.

Indeed, it's not until the fourth track – the rather lovely 'Dayglow' – that we hear Karry Walker's vocals mixed clean and upfront. It's an affecting, versatile voice, and the performance eloquently captures the weary quality of the song. I'm glad she made us wait three tracks for it.

Noncommittal Modernism - slaloming from melancholia to noise

Foamy Lather's songs are often explorations of single ideas and motifs, rather than complex, crafted entities. Development tends to be in arrangement and performance rather than built into the songs' structures. The impression is of a fragmentary work – slaloming from acoustic melancholia to collages of mechanical noise.

There's something Modernist about it all - rather TS Eliot ("a heap of broken images") – and the listener is quite deliberately (it seems to me) left to make sense of the bizarre juxtapositions and extreme, sudden shifts in tone and colour.

All of which, of course, makes it a difficult record about which to make general observations. I might call it sparse in nature – but then I think of the burst of lushness (strings, vocal harmonies, dirty drums) towards the end of 'Girl On Girl'. Listening to the pitch-bent, woozy near-bitonality of 'Whiskey Sour', I might call it obscure and capricious ... Or apathetic, wry and remote, with the Blur-like, "can't be bothered" vocal inflections of 'Turn Me On'. And then I stumble upon a gem of heartfelt sincerity – the nostalgia-tinted, melancholic 'Bury Me' – that knocks my carefully-assembled adjectives into disarray.

It's enigmatic, then – and eclectic. And challenging. In the best way.


Sugary platitudes + chauvinism

Which brings me to the song I've chosen to feature. Download an mp3 of 'World Of Suck' by Ultralash.

Bearing in mind my words above, it may need not be said that there's no representative track on this album – no neat encapsulation of the Ultralash sound. But I think 'World Of Suck' illustrates what I (perhaps pretentiously) think of as the band's noncommittal modernism.

Again, carried by a weighty beat (heavily distorted – bit-crushed – kit), it's a poker-faced 'Nothing Compares 2 U' (Sinnead O'Connor's version) for the 00s – its lyrics juxtaposing sugary romantic platitudes with intense chauvinism:

You're cute
Nice rack
Not fat
What's that?
You're fine
I can really talk to you.

It's a brilliantly unsettling song: by turns comical and dark, impenetrably delivered. Again, I'm reminded of PJ Harvey – in spirit and fearlessness more than in sound. Investigate: visit the Ultralash website.

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