Ultrasound - Play for Today

by Jonathan Tate Rating:7.5 Release Date:2012-09-24

Ultrasound are a band I was vaguely aware of many years ago and this is their first album since reforming 11 years after an acrimonious split. Play for Today initially reminded me of The Dears' No Cities Left but infused with the sound of 80s indie, sonically referencing as it does The Smiths, The La's, The Stone Roses, Echo & the Bunnymen and a list so long it would be impossible to write the whole thing down. There are also guitar sounds which wouldn't feel out of place on a Cult album; touches of Beatles-esque psychedelia and moments when Ultrasound seem to be channelling Future of the Left, Elbow and Richard Hawley by turns .

And yet, with all that, it sounds incredibly fresh; greater than the sum of its parts and with numerous rewards to be gained from repeated listening. Play for Today doesn't feel like a comeback at all. And I suppose in some ways it isn't; because Ultrasound never really made it - their first flash of fame looks like a warm up or a trial run for the main event that is taking place right now.

Most of that list of influences was there in their earlier work, but now seems more refined and mature - particularly in 'Tiny' Wood's vocals, which have taken on a richness, a worldliness which comes with age, experience and a careful approach to crafting not just a lyric with meaning, but a delivery that communicates the nuances thereof.

First (double a-side) single 'Welfare State'/'Sovereign' bookends the album rather beautifully, and consequently I'll talk about both songs later, but In the meantime, a whistle stop tour of the rest of the album: 'Beautiful sadness' initial tremolo chord gives way to a Stranglers-y anthem which relishes the enchantment of embracing sorrow with dignity. 'Twins' has a big, echoing sound and a slow-paced, handclap-thud accompaniment in the verse which acts as a heartbeat to the lilting vocal that wafts over it.

'Nonsense' is just the loveliest way to admonish a loved one for harping on about their insecurities and, one senses, Wood reproaching himself for his own. 'Between Two Rivers' starts with a colliery band and religiously infused lyrics which can only be read as a melancholy paean to England, for all its good or ill. The much rockier 'Goodbye Baby, Amen' follows one of these two rivers, using the same themes to mercilessly lambast humanity for the negative impact of its actions on the country, while 'Deus Ex Natura' floats down the opposing watercourse in a celebration of the land and an ode to nature (and the more animal instincts of human nature).

'Long Way Home' serves as a more gentle rebuke to the populace, highlighting our insignificance in the scheme of things while keeping human relationships front and centre. 'Glitter Box' is a gothic take on Ultrasound's experiences with fame and self-destruction, the high point of which is bass player Vanessa Best absolutely nailing a Nancy Sinatra meets Lulu vocal.

Play for Today should be viewed in its entirety as a great concept album which charts the story of a human, a group of musicians, individuals, a society and the dislocation and reconnection of all of these, with the use of 'Welfare State' as the opener and 'Sovereign' as the denouement being the ribbon which ties it all together. This particularly rings true when viewed in light of Wood's previous statements about Ultrasound being a disparate group of people of different ages and backgrounds who, in their first incarnation, had little in common, and how this is also true of humanity.

'Welfare State' serves to reintroduce us to Ultrasound as mission statement, potted history and allegorical state of the nation rolled into one - even breaking down in the middle as if to represent the wilderness years in which their current sensibilities as individuals were formed. 'Sovereign' on the other hand, feels like the completion of the reforming of these individuals into the single, living, breathing, sweating entity that is, at last, Ultrasound as it should have been all those years ago but couldn't because in great music, as in life, the journey is the destination.

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