Back to Earth
The album Back to Earth is released by Eventual Heirs, and available from:
The band are- in their own words- “distinctly Scottish“; their ambition and drive seriously impressive- the results speak for themselves. On their debut L.P., they give the listener a glimpse into strange scenes and vivid themes: this five-piece mean business.
IN today’s review I will investigate a band I have a lot of respect for.
The quintet is a group that have been working hard to ensure that their debut album is as fresh and engaging as possible; promoting it, making sure that it reaches as many ears as possible. I shall arrive at Universal Thee’s door in due time, but have been thinking about a few things (as-of-late). In my last feature, I investigated the 20th birthday of a rather special time/genre of music- ‘Britpop’. When looking back at this wonderful time, it occurred to me how many wonderful acts were part of this movement. The obvious leaders such as Oasis and Blur were making the biggest noises, but so many bands were joining together, ensuring that British music was at the forefront of the world’s attention. For me, the most impressive aspect of the ‘Britpop’ era was the invention and fun that was abound. By 1997, introspection and something more mood-lit was entering the scene, but the years between 1993-1997 saw a succession of elliptical and joyful anthems being produced. The bands of the time were intent of ensuring that as many feet were moving as possible; that their songs stuck in the memory and were not easily forgettable. When that period ended, and music started to reincorporate U.S. influences, the party, it seemed, was over. I mention ‘Britpop’ as it was a time that not only saw some wonderful music being produced, but spurned a lot of creativity and rivalry between the groups of the time. As of now, music seems to be a little more compartmentalized. Perhaps it is the sheer weight and number of acts making sounds, but reciprocation is rarer: there is not the same encouragement and bâtonnage happening. During ‘Britpop’, although there was a great sense of unity and patriotism, the rivalries (such as Blur v. Oasis) inspired acts to push themselves as much as possible- meaning that the quality of music was much greater. Perhaps I am living in the past, and still wearing my violet shades, but what happened to that? As well as there being less overt jocularity and joy in music, the nature of competitiveness and thoughtfulness seem a little compressed. Bands tend to keep to themselves; solo acts likewise; I just wonder whether market forces and modern times have enforced this. My abiding point is that it is a lot harder for new bands to get recognised; to be inspired and pushed as much as possible- meaning that few acts establish a long-term foothold in the scene. It is clear that there are a lot of new musicians popping up (each day it seems), but the channels of communication and bonds seem to have broken down. Over the course of my reviews, I have surveyed a great deal of bands and solo acts that emanate from the same area- yet neither is aware of any of their contemporaries. One of the greatest pleasures I have taken from promoting certain musicians, is that they have been able to connect with other local acts- and as such have been able to help one another’s trajectory. The music industry is a hard and unforgiving one, and whilst it may be impossible to return to the symphonic glories of ‘Britpop’, there is no reason why some of the spirit and hallmarks cannot be retained. To my mind, music requires a bit of a shift. The best and bravest music seems to be emanating from the north of England- as well as Scotland. Yorkshire is establishing itself as a county synonymous with phenomenal and daring musicians; of huge sonic range and diversity- as well as a scene that is going to see many future stars. Scotland is promising similarly encouraging signs. I have seen many great Indie acts; some wonderful solo artists as well, each with their own distinct sound and armoury. Although it is impossible to unite all musicians and galvanise the entire scene, it is imaginable that local acts can conjoin. Too many times I have seen similar-sounding or like-minded acts, sometimes within a few miles of one another- yet neither is aware of the existence of the other. Just a small connection like this will not only mean that the act/band have a connection; they also have someone whom can promote their music- and encourage a little competition/rivarly. Music is a wonderful industry and sector that gives opportunities to all to present their intentions. It is also one of the most unforgiving and unpredictable ones, as well. A new act- one fill of potential and promise- deserves as much support and community as possible- I fear this is being lost. If a greater sense of connectivity and mutual appreciation were to be initiated, it not only provides anxiety relief to new musicians, but ensures that they are incentivized to push themselves creatively; thus ensuring that they a waiting audience and market years from now.
Universal Thee are a band fully worthy of a lengthy and happy career. I have been familiar with the Scot five-piece for over a year now, and followed their path closely. The music they offer, not only is imbued with some of the fun and alacrity of the ‘Britpop’ era; yet also contains a wide colour palette and diverse sounds. Based out of Edinburgh, they play in a locality with many fervent and wonderful acts. I know that they have some connections and friends within the local scene, yet it appears that there are many more bands and solo acts, not attuned to Universal’s sounds. Our endeavouring quintet have made some critical impressions, and (Back to Earth) has received some notable praise; yet I feel that the group would be having an easier time of things, were their local colleagues to lend a hand. I shall return to my theme in the conclusion, but let me take you inside the busy and bustling camp of one of Scotland’s best and most electrifying young bands. I have been fortunate enough to have reviewed Universal Thee once before (back in May, 2013) when investigating their song All Is Love. In my banner headline, I announced the group thus: “5-piece, have vocal stream-of-consciousness, and a strong ear for melody. The Saltire is being strengthened by some prophetic wind and wonderful melody“. When listening to the track, I was impressed by the conviction and quality I heard, stating: “The opening notes have shades of early R.E.M., curiously, as well as light-edged Radiohead. Maybe there is some Jack White to be heard- circa White Blood Cells“. A year has passed, and the intrepid band have unveiled their debut L.P., Back To Earth. Before I dip into the disc (and fill in some blanks), a bit about the band themselves- and where they have come from: “Distinctly Scottish band, Universal Thee have been both delighted and surprised with national radio play within days of their most recent recording sessions, showing they have achieved their aim of creating music of wider appeal than their current Edinburgh base. Attention for the band has been beginning to mount and they have been taken on by Napier University on a band development initiative. With a range of songs and styles, the five-piece, led by husband and wife, James and Lisa Russell, provide a Pixies-esque loud-quiet-loud dynamic, mixing slacker rock, grunge and indie pop. It is James talent for writing catchy melodies delivered by beautiful male/female harmonies, matched with Robin’s ability to create diverse and powerful lead guitar hooks, that ensures listeners will be singing their songs for days. Although their music gives a nod to their many interesting and diverse influences such as Ash, Pixies, Weezer and Queens of the Stone Age (amongst others), fans and bloggers agree that they genuinely have their own new, distinct and exciting sound. The blog site musicmusingsandsuch sought to describe their sound, stating: “as well as melody, there is a great deal of exciting noise; this combination, combined with male and female (lead) vocals, elicits an almost-Grunge/Punk splendour, rarely attempted in the 21st century”. The band has been recording with Garry Boyle for their gentler folky sound (previously involved in the Pixar Brave soundtrack and SAMA winners, The Holy Ghosts, album) and Ross McGowan, (producer of Fat Goth and Dananananaykroyd) for their heavier work and are working with PR company A Band of Friendship, to promote, and release, their first single and Album in early 2014, with a tour scheduled to compliment the releases“. Our five-piece have influences that range from Pixies and Ash; through Weezer and Pavement- to the gilded shores of Queens of the Stone Age. The combination of solid and diverse influences; together with a natural talent and direction, have seen many critics heaping praise upon their L.P.:
“What do you find so on Back to Earth? Abductees and catchy melodies that easily remembered and listen loop. Guitars sometimes coaxing, usually energetic and angular. Two voices, boy / girl who complement each other well and gives their side a bit rough and scratchy, dirty and brutal look a little dry, even the softer tracks“.
Dans Le Mur… Du Son
“A very good debut album indeed with some cracking songs too“.
Pat McGuire, MyvoiceofScotland
“Back to Earth is a nice album. It doesn’t wow you immediately but it’s a grower and the more you listen to it, the more you get from it“.
“James and Lisa Russell’s dual singing produces light and shade, with the latter’s soaring vocal’s adding angelic serenity…”
I will get down to investigating Back to Earth, anon, and pay my respects. I know how hard the entire band have been working- to ensure the L.P. sees the light of day. As well as promoting it tirelessly, band members have been working endlessly to raise the funds needed to record the album. It has been a labour of love, and one that the group have been striving towards for a long time now. Most new bands (or those at Universal Thee’s stage) usually put out an E.P. (or two), yet the Edinburgh group were determined to put out a full-length disc. The decisions and hard work have been paying dividends (so far), and it will give them the confidence to think ahead to album number two- or a possible E.P. Let me, then, get down to business…
The twisting and snaking intro. of Bone Collector is the first sound of the album. “You never wanna bring it up” is a coda that is repeated; James’s vocals punchy and accusatory. With an emphatic and crunching riff, the song steps up a gear after the 1:00 mark; Lisa and James combine vocally; telling the tale of a man whom never wanted to be a “city re-erector“. With shades of Bossavova-era Pixies, the track never loses momentum on energy- changing from softer and more tender implore to blitzkrieg guitar and percussion burst. With a simple and catchy chorus and a tight and impressive band performance, it is a perfect opener: our heroes waste no time in making impressions. Tiger Tiger’s gorgeous- yet hard-nailed- intro. leads a track that is almost lullaby-like. Sentiments and lines are twisted; considered and elongated to maximum effect (“These are the words/of the everlasting verse” are delivered especially potently). Boasting a particular impressive vocal performance (from both our leads), the guitar, bass and drums melt and spar with one another; infuse perfectly, before streaming like a river. Although Bone Collector may be the more memorable of the opening two tracks; Tiger Tiger offers more sonic intrigue: it is a strong and confident composition. Wolves of the Netherworld (again) has a shorter intro.; sparing little time with reflection before the vocals arrive. With a mantra that puts the central figure “Down there bobbing at the bottom of the sea“, it is a track that has a similar sound and pace (of the opening duo); yet seems more upbeat and sing along. With some elements of early-career Ash and Pavement, it is another catchy and bouncy track. The song is delivered with such abandon and energy that it comes to an end all too soon- making you want to hear more. With a softer and more gentle beginning, Feeling Fragile may be the hangover- following the drunken delirium that proceeded it. Our hero and heroine share vocals; yearning to be home and get away from a dead scene. The song has some U.S. roots; with the likes of The Magic Numbers and Document-era R.E.M. coming through. Line such as “Everything’s broken/You know” paint dislocated image- given emotive weight and conviction due to the tender vocal performances. You can imagine our band wandering a dust road, looking for some salvation- something to rescue them. It is a song that not only provides a needed comedown, but also shows a different (sensitive) side to the group. Eric‘s rumbling intro. and breakneck vocal performance cranks the energy-o-meter back to 11. In the way that our two leads combine; James yelps and adds menace to certain words, it has clear elements of Pixies, particularly their work during Dolittle and Surfer Rosa. Some of the guitar twangs and strikes have some of Joey Santiago’s memories in them- not that the track is too Pixie-esque. You can hear the distinct- and native- accents of our leads shine through. There is no U.S. inflections or Americanization: Scottish brogue is evident when the duo sing “Eric was a lonely guy/Lonely guy“. It is a combustible and frantic track that is done with in just over one minute- the pummeling pace leaves you a little breathless by the end. Down perfectly calms proceedings again- at first. Like Feeling Fragile, it sees our band in more considered and reflective mood. The track mutates into a sprightley and toe-tapping number before the 1:00 marker; the words “And down and down and down/You make me go round and round and round” elicited. With some flavour notes of legends such as The Kinks (in the composition), it is a song that catches you with its chorus. The strong and impressive vocal performance (from James and Lisa) enforces the catchiness; the tight and punchy guitar and percussion makes sure it sticks in your brain. There is an air of ’60s grooviness; there is such a swaying and psychedelic charm to the song, that it implores you to get up and dance- to surrender to its charms. Down is one of the L.P.’s longest tracks, and followed the shortest (Eric). Arriving as a mid-album fulcrum, Make a Little Money (Then You Die) pulls up. With a rumbling and dazzling intro. energy and invigoration are instilled early on. Again there are elementary shades of Pixies; with Come On Pilgrim’s gentler and more melodic moments, springing to mind. Whereas previous tracks such as Eric and Bone Collector have pervaded a similar sound and evocation; perhaps Make a Little Money‘s is a little less urgent and bracing than if it were higher up the order. Regardless, it is a charming and memorable mid-album track; all the band’s components (strong vocal interplay; multi-layered and intelligent compositions) are solid. Perhaps Down‘s intoxicating sound and chorus are still in my mind; yet Make a Little Money (Then You Die)’s ideas and lyrics seem pertinent. Perhaps you can apply the song’s title to the struggle most bands face: working hard until they make a little money; but by then it is too late (to do anything with it). Perhaps not the quintet’s finest moment, it is one that seems relevant and personal to them- perhaps some sardonic humour is at work. Kicking off the second half (the band’s previous single) Aranis Natas arrives. I am familiar with this track already; with its chugging and rumbling intro.; its scowling and grumbling vocals- all its wonder. Like Down, the song’s title is repeated and tempted; rallied and chanted- this time James gives a particular determined and gravelly delivery. Our heroes (Lisa and James combine) state that “Even if you see it“, then it’s “never gonna last“. Aside from the Byzantine and baroque title (that conjure up all sorts of images), there is a great quiet-loud dynamic that keeps the song on its toes. Although Feeling Fragile more textured and subtle; Aranis Natas is more urgent and forceful. A mid-song musical parable levels proceedings and provides chance for absorption- before the vocal force is back into view. The song is filled with humour; the entire group combine wonderfully- and the vocal performance of our two leads is perhaps the strongest so far. It is- and was- a rightful hit, and a song that is still getting great feedback and attention. Bear In the Hospital, with its light and cascading intro. has hints of early (The) Libertines; footnotes of Weezer (perhaps). You can tell from the title, that humour is going to be evident within. It is, but personal utterances and confessions seep in; something more direct: “Don’t wear me out/’cause you don’t know what I’m all about“. Boasting the most impressive guitar and bass work on the album, it is a track that bolsters Aranis Natas’s intentions- and provides a strong one-two. With qualitative shades of R.E.M.’s Near Wild Heaven, there is a similar Out of Time adventurous joy and strong melody. The quintet have been celebrated for their gift with a melody, and it is the way that a little of Radiohead’s Street Spirit (Fade Out) arpeggio; mixed with Jack White’s Never Far Away; with whispered dark edges of Pixie’s Debaser, that creates a fairytale/balletic skip and step. Lisa’s vocals are warm and sensuous: little honeyed edges of cherry country and folk, melting with a some U.S. indie edges too. The result is soothing and sexy. Similarly, the masculine edges from James’s voice compliment perfectly, and when “I see it/More now than ever” is sung, the resultant chemical reaction is soothing and beautiful. Pelican Crossing gallops and bounces from the off; with perhaps some edges of Free All Angels Ash in the mix. The track boasts a beautiful melody and vocal performance; our hero yearning “to be free again“. The sound pulls away from ’80s U.S. Punks and Grunge and towards U.K.-based Rock and Pop- perhaps with some 1960s semblance. The antepenultimate track, She Was a Whore has similar sonic evocations as All Is Love (there is a similar feel). The song tells of a central figure; unattached and uncaring, whom does not seem concerned by anything happening around her. The anti-heroine is put in the spotlight, as it is claimed: “Daytime, night-time/Any time at all/She’ll come to my bedroom door“. The lyrics are vivid and scene-setting, but the sound has a lot in common (maybe a wee too much) with other tracks on the set. Not to say that it does not distinguish itself (it does), but it does so lyrically, rather than sonically. The words make me smile, no less, and the band demonstrate another side to them, as they survey a rather salacious character (perhaps that has infested their lives at some point). Before the swan song arrives, Shallow Juvenile arrives, and, as the title may suggest offers another anti-hero. Focusing on a somewhat petulant and immature central figure, the song sees the phrase “I’m never going back” bent, elongated and repeated- almost as a rally cry. After some delightful whistling and (I may be wrong) xylophone interlude, the infectious coda is once more, unfurled. The track has a breezy and U.S. vibe to it, and wonder whether future producers will snap it up- as it could be ready-made to score a drama or Indie film. With some acoustic tenderness, Million Voices closes the L.P. With our hero asking: “Is it real?/Is it fake?“, the vocal is fast-paced, and has a distinctly American sound to it. There is a touch of Grandaddy in there (that same sort of high-pitched sound); perhaps a little They Might Be Giants, too- a straddling of East and West Coast U.S.A. When our heroine steps in, perhaps a little romance is lost when it is said: “You’ve got a beautiful face/You’ve got a f*****-up inside“. This bold honesty is juxtaposed with some honest emotion- a few seconds later (“Every winter/We lose/One million voices“). That combination of spiky and direct offering from Lisa, proceeding James’s earnest and impassioned croon is a terrific effect- when they combine during the chorus, there is an odd yet natural unity. After a lot of rambunctiousness and electricity, it is fitting that the album end with something more tempered and softer. Million Voices fades (the only track on the L.P. that does, I think), and Back to Earth touches down and settles- ending a tremendous debut.
Some reviewers have alluded to the fact that the album feels a little bloated at times- maybe there are a few too many tracks. Perhaps there are the odd one or two songs- She Was a Whore and Make a Little Money (Then You Die)– that do not match the dizzying heights of their best work, yet they should have no fear. It is a brave decision to release an L.P. at all (if you are a new act), and it shows that the band are as ambitious as they come. By having 14 tracks, it shows the full range and intentions of a hungry young group. Perhaps trimming a track or two would result in a leaner and more muscular set, yet I found no weak or filler material in the set- a big achievement in itself. No track lasts longer than needed, and because of the expert and atmospheric production, each song is compelling and intriguing. Back to Earth is the summation of months of hard planning and work; saving and scrmiping; dreaming and desire. The five-piece should be very proud of what they have achieved, and in tracks such as Aranis Natas and Down they have crafted some modern-day gems. You can hear clear influences such as Pixies and Pavement in quite a few of the tracks, yet it is no distraction: there is never too strong an aroma or semblance. Too many modern acts tend to staple themselves to the banks of Arctic Monkeys or whomever they deem to be ‘fashionable’ or ‘commercially viable’. Other groups tend to replicate an existing band’s sound- in the hope that it will see them held in high esteem by critics and fans alike. Universal Thee have a varied back catalogue and range of influences, and sprinkle scents and flavour notes into their templates. The abiding sensation is of a hungry group with a clear identity and a desire to mingle and nestle with the best bands of the moment. The sonic offerings from Spivey, Perrie and Haddow are compelling and evocative, throughout. The vocal interplay of Mr. and Mrs. Russell is the most alarming and memorable facet. Each has a unique voice that adds texture and variance to each track; yet when they combine the effect is impressive and indelible. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Universal Thee do not stick with one particular ‘sound’; in the sense that they pervade a certain timber and pace- and replicate that over the course of 10 or 11 tracks. Each song on the L.P. has its own gravity and pattern, and as such, as the album feels fuller and more diverse (there will be a song to fit everyone’s moods and tastes). Like Queens of the Stone Age’s album …Like Clockwork, there are immediate smashes; and a whole set of tracks that grow and reveal their charms. By the fifth or sixth listen, the full force and effect of the album hits, and unveils its intricacies and nuance. Kudos goes to the production, which mixes Gil Norton-esque authority (think Dolittle and Echo Park) with Butch Vig majesty. Tracks are never too cluttered or too sparse; full consideration is given to summoning as much atmosphere as possible. I began this review by bemoaning the lack of comradery and social linking between bands. There is a thriving music scene in Scotland, and many great bands and acts working hard. Universal Thee are amongst the best and most striking, and deserve wider acclaim. If a few of their local cohorts were to help spread the word- as well as provide some rivalry and competitive incentive- then it could help augment the charms and sparks of a brilliant young band. I know that the bars and venues of London are seeking Universal Thee’s Pixies-cum-modern Britain blend; the likes of the U.S., Australia and Europe could provide a home for their mandates- a vast enterprise of fandom awaits. Although the group are in their fledgling stages- and have a lot more ahead of them- I am sure they are going to be thinking ahead, and looking at horizons; markets and countries to be conquered etc. For those whom like their sounds harder and imperious, then there is a lot to treasure. That said, a great deal of melody and softness lingers within Back to Earth– it is an album that does not subjugate or discriminate; it wants to draw everyone in. Bias aside, the band are a friendly and likeable group of musicians doing everything they can to get their music heard. As much as anything, they are inspiring me to write and be daring; to aim as high as possible and change my way of thinking (in terms of songwriting). Too many bands have a disposable nature and one-dimensional charm- few manage to remain ensconced within the collective memory. I hope that this year- as well as future ones- see our heroes subvert natural expectations, and claim their place alongside their idols- Queens’, Pixies, Pavement etc. Give their album a listen, absorb its layers and myriad sounds, and witness a band on the rise; one whom…
HAVE no intention of calling it a day any time soon.
Back to Earth Track Listing:
Bone Collector– 9.4/10
Tiger Tiger– 9.3
Wolves of the Netherworld– 9.3
Feeling Fragile– 9.4
Make a Little Money (Then You Die)- 8.6
Aranis Natas– 9.7
Bear In the Hospital– 9.3
All Is Love– 9.5
Pelican Crossing– 9.2
She Was a Whore– 8.7
Shallow Juvenile– 9.1
Million Voices– 9.4
Standout Track: Aranis Natas.
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