There’s a game in our household, or a pasttime, whereby I listen to new and old paisley records, and my wife asks, “Is this a new record, or an old one?” (I can’t help it, I listen to a lot of 1960s music and 1960s worship). This is absolutely the way that Ultimate Painting entered our conversations, when I rushed to jam their wicked, almost-universally-well-received self-titled debut. My friends have largely felt the same way — some call the band “a love letter to analog” pop, while others comment on the amazing lineage of total bummer pop the duo invokes. Of course, this feeling is inescapable with the debut, because the duo tossed together a few songs after their other bands toured together, and the recording was basically a sketch for their vision. This year’s Green Lanes advances that vision with a “proper” recording that trades in the same waters with a brand new ship. (Both LPs are on Trouble In Mind Records).
Anyone who has kept their own home recordings, or worked with musicians in a “pinch,” putting songs together quickly, working off collaborative whims or a sketch of a project, will understand that the accidents of working quickly can sometimes reveal more about music than the most elaborate, well-thought recordings. I have thought about this throughout the year, and this is my best explanation for why I love Ultimate Painting. They captured that feeling of Bob Dylan’s first electric records, where a gang of musicians worked together in one room. Beyond the harmonic warmth of the analog instruments, Ultimate Painting understand that they can use a certain recording aesthetic to communicate (or propel) pure energy through the speakers. A complete and utter heist.
There is something greater than the parts in both Ultimate Painting records. On the debut, the band’s dense, on-every-single-beat drumming and bass allows these beautifully weaved clean guitars to sound gigantic. It’s not necessarily that the tones of the guitars are bright — they are admittedly very British guitar sounds (which shouldn’t be surprising) — but that the layers, rhythms, audible mistakes (a good thing), audible victories make the entire affair jump out of the speakers. The overall sound is bright, even if the elements are not, and this is where Green Lanes excels: even by working in a studio proper, or setting out with a “proper” recording process in mind, the group emphasize bright angles on the pangea of 1960s pop.
Now, most people will focus on how Ultimate Painting are dead ringers for Doug Yule-era Velvet Underground, but I think they’re more than that, too. In one sense, the group delivers the other side of paisley pop to complement Darker My Love’s trips to the country on Alive As Your Are (Dangerbird); Ultimate Painting work in the same medium of squeaky-clean pop, but they take on the bummers and comedowns, rather than the ramshackle shotgunning played out behind the mask of intelligent country (the best country is always ready to sop up cheap bourbon and discuss the finer points of The Fed, and if you don’t believe me, I’m inviting you up nort’). On the other hand, Ultimate Painting totally dig into the wealth of incredible (maybe underrated!) 1990s pop; here, Teenage Fanclub and Sloan immediately (if obviously) come to mind. Anyway, Ultimate Painting prove that for all its repetition and complete entrapments of 4/4 pulses, pop has an incredibly wide vocabulary simply by playing with recording aesthetic, timbre, and of course by writing earworms (in this sense, one can conceivably riff on a 1960s trend while also drawing from considerably more recent developments).
Two sides emerge from the expanding songbook of Ultimate Painting. There is the bank-robbing-getaway-car adrenalin of “Central Park Blues” versus the accessible sadness/downturns of “Rolling in the Deep End” on the debut; these parties are represented by “Woken By Noises” and “Sweet Chris,” to give just two examples. What remains so sweet for each of these sides is the consistent, almost monolithic rhythmic style used by the drums and bass; from that foundation, that buttery, layered guitar weaving and vocal harmony concoction can permeate supreme. Even where Ultimate Painting feels like they’re taking you somewhere familiar, it’s that welcome familiarity of that old, steady friend where no words are necessary. That might be the most effective way to describe the ease with which Ultimate Painting communicate their pop aspirations.
There are aspects of Ultimate Painting that Green Lanes leaves uncovered, which leads one to wonder where the next effort might head. If the latest effort perfects the approach of the debut, it also leaves some of the distorted and tape-manipulated segments untouched, instead favoring that paisley weaving wheelhouse. Should Ultimate Painting shift gears and dig deeper into their tools hinted in the debut, they will be able to upend the Velvet Underground comparison, or perhaps work backwards from Doug Yule to White Light / White Heat (or, perhaps in Teenage Fanclub terms, to “The Concept”). At the same time, Ultimate Painting, like Darker My Love before them (and of course, White Fence), prove that that 1960s worship need not bask in those Vanilla Fudge heaviness any longer; perhaps our trip to the country will be long enough to sit for another whiskey.