by Elliot Davies
Playing a short set in the attic above a Nottingham record store, Ultimate Painting’s poignant and unassuming music is practically perfect in every way.
The show tonight is the last date of a mini-tour of instore sets, which itself falls in the middle of a much larger tour that takes in both sides of the Atlantic. They’re touring their new album, Green Lanes, having only released their debut late last year.
Their eponymous debut had a tired autumnal vibe that, at times, brought to mind the more yearning songs from The Clientele’s repertoire. Green Lanes, though, is full of the sort of bittersweet summery sounds that bring to mind the wistful sighs of Real Estate and Mac DeMarco. I’m still not sure which I prefer. But given that each album is barely more than 30 minutes long, both breeze by in a single sitting like a double helping of your favourite exquisitely fluffy American sitcom.
Tonight’s short show leans heavily on their summer album, Green Lanes. Suits me! It’s a warm August evening, after all, and Rough Trade Nottingham has such a fine selection of beers to choose from.
Endearingly, almost every single song in the set is introduced by four loud drumstick taps, after which they’re off – dual lead guitars, mostly played clean, and with neither part dominating. Instead they intertwine like a pair of vibrant colours – enthralling on their own terms, but together achieving a rich lustre which, combined with the soft harmonies and the languid bass and drum grooves, creates the sort of intoxicating sound collage that envelopes the mind like warm chocolate melting on an even warmer tongue.
The band’s named after a defining painting by the Drop City group, and for a good idea of how they sound when heard live while under the influence of a few fine beers, imagine yourself stood in the middle of this synergetic masterpiece, only in a room that’s bathed in late summer sunlight.
It’s only on the closing song – Ten Street – that the languid pace is dropped in favour of some deep acid rock tones and some frantic freakout shredding. Instead of the after-hours moodiness of the third Velvet Underground album, now they’re evoking the Exploding Plastic Inevitable intensity of their debut. For a few wild seconds, they almost hit the sordid peaks of European Son. It’s loud, wild, and unhinged – but unfortunately, like the set itself, it’s over before it really gets a chance to take off.
Over before it really gets a chance to take off…
Nick Hornby’s 31 Songs is one of the most cloying, sanctimonious, and downright irritating books ever written about music. It reads like it was written by a man who’s spent years pawing through back issues of Q Magazine, meticulously cultivating the reviews and opinions he deems to be most righteous with the intention of having them laminated for hygienic bathroom reading.
But like the proverbial stopped clock, even a man as resolutely rockist as Nick Hornby can occasionally hit the mark. When pondering the future of music criticism, he curls out the following:
… if pop music is to survive … we must learn the critical language which allows us to sort out the good from the bad, the banal from the clever, the fresh from the stale; if we simply sit around waiting for the next punk movement to come along, then we will be telling our best songwriters that what they do is worthless, and they will become marginalised. The next Lennon and McCartney are probably already with us; it’s just that they won’t turn out to be bigger than Jesus. They’ll merely be turning out songs as good as Norwegian Wood and Hey Jude, and I can live with that.”
With this in mind, consider Ultimate Painting, a collaboration between Jack Cooper of Mazes and James Hoare of Veronica Falls.
Cooper and Hoare are in no way marginalised, and they are by no means the next Lennon and McCartney. And no, their songs are not as good as Norwegian Wood and Hey Jude.
But do you know what they are? They’re bloody perfect: Beautifully played, beautifully sung, and meticulously arranged to the extent that not a single note or beat is there that doesn’t have to be there. Their lyrics occupy a perfect middle ground between earnestness and wryness, and their melodies are the sort that, if you let them in, they tend to stick around.
And yet, when most listeners hear them, they say something like “Ultimate Painting sound like the third Velvet Underground album. 6/10.”
And that’s it.
Yep, because they play a style sort of music that’s been played before, Ultimate Painting – and many of their like – will perhaps always be dismissed as light relief. It’s certainly an overstatement to describe them as marginalised, but it still feels like a damn shame that a band this beautiful is more or less destined to be underrated and underappreciated.
Pop music as we know it is still a relatively young entity. For the first 50 years or so of its existence it was defined by a relentless pace and an utter refusal to ever sit still. The speed at which its evolved has instilled in the minds of many the false notion that only the freshest and most forward-thinking of sounds have any merit at all.
But people don’t generally write and play music with the express intention of pushing things forward. Some do, granted, but the vast majority of people do it simply because they love music.
There isn’t a Simon Reynolds screech loud enough to convince me that, if a musician looks to the past for inspiration, then their work is inherently inferior. The way that music sounds shouldn’t matter in the slightest. Much more important, absolutely without exception, is the way that music makes you feel.
And Ultimate Painting make me feel very good indeed.