Album of the Week: Ultrasound – Play for Today
Despite their unusual appearance, in particular, Andrew ‘Tiny’ Wood’s giant frame, Ultrasound were hot shit for about a year in the late nineties. Propelled by acclaimed singles Same Band and Stay Young, the NME adored their loud, brash, but technically proficient, almost proggy brand of indie rock, leading to a string of sellout shows, high profile support slots and festival bookings.
But then came the debut album. Despite including some of the early fan favourites, it was meandering, over-long, stacked with filler and critically panned. Furthermore, in-band tensions shortly after its release did for a number of big shows (including T in the Park ’99, much to Tidal Wave’s irritation) and Ultrasound were no more.
So in amongst the recent bigger name reunions, it was a bit of shock seeing their name thrown about as recording new material. Even WE had forgotten them and their scorching show at the Dundee Westport more than a decade earlier, save for our iTunes tossing out Stay Young or Floodlit World every so often.
And the album? Remarkably, thirteen years after Everything Picture, Ultrasound have finally produced a record that lives up to their early promise.
It’s a lean, ten track, single disc effort, no song passes the seven minute mark, and where the first album lacked in tunes, Play for Today delivers them. Lots of them, as it happens. Social deprivation is still high on the agenda and opener Welfare State manages to balance its state of the nation commentary with a neat melody and Wood’s squawked, yet affecting vocals will bring memories flooding back.
The guitars on Beautiful Sadness would make Queen proud and the reunited five piece sound like they’re having great fun with the multiple time changes. Nonsense has a lighter, simpler touch – the ideal single if you will. Vanessa Best’s cooing backing vocals are scattered across the record like fairy dust, the ideal foil to Wood’s gruffer tones adding a texture and softness that carves open the melody on Long Way Home. On Goodbye Baby, Amen they sound positively doo-woppy.
Between Two Rivers feels like that dangerous of enterprises – the deliberately pitched album centrepiece – but they get away with. A big, slow, emotionally drenched number, the chugging guitar breaks and chanting help rather than hinder it and you wonder if this was EXACTLY the kind of thing they were trying to all those years ago. Maybe we just weren’t ready for indie prog?
We are now though. Here’s hoping there are enough people still listening to rekindle the good vibes the band felt in the nineties. You still owe us a Scottish festival show though guys…….
That said, we were distinctly honoured to have a natter with Andrew Wood las week.
That’s an impressive gap between albums – are you in fact the British Guns ‘n Roses?
Well I’m not sure what their story is, but they didn’t set the precedent. Bands have been doing this for many years, not that we’re trying to follow in their footsteps or anything. We didn’t do it on purpose – it just happened that way. I grew up in the ’70s and thought nothing of waiting many years for the bands that I liked to put aside their raging ego differences and get it together in the country/studio/the Bahamas. Kate Bush doesn’t even have the excuse of having split up, but I’m still prepared to wait, so I figure it doesn’t really matter, as long as we’re still relevant and entertaining – that’s for you to decide.
What were the main drivers to making music together again?
I don’t think there are many bands out there who have the magic we have when we get together, and it’s a shame not to continue that. The main impetus to getting together initially was to play in support of Tim Smith (of the Cardiacs – Ultrasound’s tentative reunion was prompted by a tribute to the singer who suffered a heart attack a few years back – Ed), who was the main inspiration that drew us together in the first place, but once we got together we realised that what we do is special and should continue, if we can make it happen.
What inspired Play for Today?
One of my hero’s has always been Dennis Potter and I drew a lot of inspiration from him for many of the lyrics I wrote. I like the fact that he is both optimist and pessimist, religious and atheist, realist and fantasist. I see nothing wrong in being contrary, especially when trying to express human nature and its many foibles.
Are there more shows planned?