(SONGS FROM UNDER MY BED – Lost Classics Rediscovered)
#2 – “Everything Picture” : ULTRASOUND (1999)
I happen to know - cos I’m one of those types - that the album I listened to more than any other in 1999 was a prog-heavy double LP by a third division Indie band (and I mean that in a good way!) fronted by a ageing behemoth. Introducing… “Everything Picture”.
Ultrasound are one of those late Nineties Indie bands that no-one seems to remember now. I suppose it was a long time ago. The main songwriters and focal points of the group were youthful bearded guitar-and-multi-instrumentalist Richard Green and the imposing figure of Andrew “Tiny” Wood, the twenty-stone, thirty-something lead singer. Initial press coverage often focused overmuch on the “anti-star” image of Tiny and less about the music.
They were signed to Nude in 1997, also home of the slowly fading Britpop front-runners Suede. And there are definite comparisons between the two bands – both contained “colourful” frontmen and both distilled Glam Rock influences through an Indie filter. But where Brett Anderson’s voice was arch and almost (?) over-camp, Tiny’s could be equally affecting, but could go further, cracking with keening emotion. And where Suede’s main weakness – their lyrics – prevented them from being a truly great band, Ultrasound shone. Suede’s lyric sheet read like a cartoon version of itself: “petrol sky beautiful trash slum dwelling sky high across the sci-fi city, you and I” etc. Ultrasound’s words are almost matter-of-fact, mundane but somehow glorious.
The opener, “Cross My Heart” eases you in slowly, but it’s the clarion call of “Same Band”, their debut single, which really grabs your attention. Joyous guitars, an uptempo wide-grinning stomp. This is not the closed-down music of the post-Britpop dad-rock malaise – this is music with wide horizons and big ideas. The cover art consists mainly of paintings daubed by members of the band. I don’t think Embrace ever managed that.
And if that was impressive, “Stay Young” ups the ante even further. Opening with a grooving organ pattern and distorted Gary Glitter samples, Tiny breaks into a truly anthemic paean to the beauty of rock n’ roll youth – “My advice to all you boys and all you girls is never try to be old / I wanna Stay Young” – which touches the heart while nimbly avoiding disturbing the contents of the stomach. This is where the Glam Rock heart of the album lives, but it conveys the fleeting tragedy and self-mockery of the genre rather than the tiresome stodge: “Gary Glitter’s gone to seed / so who will lead us now?”
The first side of the album (on tape anyway – yes, I still have tapes! Of course I do!) closes with the stormy “Suckle” and its “life is cruel / but I am kind” wistful petulance. And once the main body of the song dies down, with that particular storm raged out, there’s a new dawn of calm instrumental to take us to the interval.
My hunch – though it is only a hunch, based on the writing credits – is that the Glam influences came more from Tiny Wood, and the Prog angle more from Richard Green. The second side kicks off with my favourite track: Green’s “Aire And Calder”, a harmonic gallop through the world of canals in Yorkshire (??) which spirals off into a fantastic building solo and climax worthy of any overblown Seventies Proggers. But good. I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. And maybe that’s what the record-buying public didn’t buy into at the time: even as late as 1999, Prog still had the whiff of impropriety about it, though maybe now in 2009 it might have fared better.
The album carries on at this same high level: the sumptuously scrappy “Sentimental Song” swoops between highs and lows quite rightly recognising that “we all sing along”, and climaxing with a suitably catchy refrain of “la la la la la”s. “Floodlit World” is poppier, but with a weary ruefulness which I still find utterly charming. The jagged “My Impossible Dream” continues in the same vein of cynicism which partially (but never totally) kills the belief in romance and beauty. And then plays out with a tender organ awash with weird audio samples and clips from radio programmes and probably other places. One of the last samples, looping on and on is someone mumbling “maybe… just maybe” in a sad tone. It’s great.
The final (and title) track is another abstract mini-epic which descends into an orchestral whirlwind of screaming, groaning, snatches from previous songs on the album, and industrial strength feedback, though before that it’s also almost soul music at times. Astonishing. And a sad pointer at where this fascinating band could have gone next, maybe?
Because “Everything Picture” turned out to be the only album they ever released, but if you’re going to only make one album, you might as well make it a sprawling experimental double full of grandeur, poignancy and heart. Ultrasound split up in October 1999, the same year, and none of their subsequent bands have reached even this negligible level of fame and critical acclaim since. Funny old game. But seek it out, if you can.
* http://members.tripod.com/~Skippingb0y/USfront.htm - An Ultrasound fan site which may not have been updated since 1999!
* http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RAY6wRow1c - an appearance of “Stay Young” on Jools Holland slightly stripped of the magnificence of the album version, but the closest you’re going to get on YouTube. “Floodlit World” is a slightly nicer song from the same show:
but missing the last minute sadly.