By Pat McGuire
Universal Thee are a band from Edinburgh, consisting of James Russell on Guitar and vocals, Lisa Russell on vocals, Robin Spivey on guitar, Andrew Perrie on Bass and Kevin Haddow on drums. I got their album to review as I was too ill to go and see them play live in Glasgow on Monday night ( 31st March ). I’m still bummed that I didn’t make the gig, but they were kind enough to send me the Album to review anyway.
Hearing this band initially you might think you were listening to something from that great epoch of indie rock that came out of the USA in the early to mid nineties. Do you remember Surfa Rosa? Doolittle? Have you ever listened to Slanted and Enchanted?
Back to Earth is Universal Thee’s debut album released on Eventual Heirs Records. And it rocks and sways and almost topples over around hooky guitar riffs, wobbly bass lines, almost vulnerable vocals and drums that keep it all tied down but also flip over themselves sometimes for added fun. Following on from the excellent Single “Aranis Natas” which was released in January, “Back to Earth” is an album full of quirks and treats. As a debut album it showcases a band that seem to know where they want to go musically. And that is wherever the hell they want to! The record segues easily between quiet and loud and quiet again. No apologies from me for using that term inversely. They like The Pixies which is a good thing. And I’m talking about The Pixies pre the several recent nostalgia tours. Before Black Francis was Frank Black and Kim Deal formed The Breeders. When that band were still a band in the true sense. I love The Pixies, they changed my life in a great way. I hope that Universal Thee change someone’s life too.
So the album, it’s all over the place in a good way. From the opening track to the ending, you really don’t know what exact dynamic will hit on the break or verse. It leaves you feeling a bit insecure but at the same time resolved when it either crashes into some mellow choruses or heavier guitar noise. “Bone Collector” the opening track could be a tribute to “Debaser” by The Pixies. Sonically it shares some of the same themes. But at the same time also could be an early Buzzcocks song with the widdley guitar lines too. It also has some nice vocal touches that make it nicely different to the aural influences I detected on first listen. It ends suddenly with some feedback fading away, gently…
“Tiger Tiger” paraphrases in part William Blake, I assume it’s about poetry but it could easily be about something else. I really don’t know, and I like the fact that what seems as an obvious lyrical theme suddenly flies into something else. “Wolves” is a quirky trip of a song, possibly the only one so far that is Pavement-esque to my ears. If it was a bit slower and had more cowbell it could almost be Malkmus as his crew. It is hook filled and short and sweet, like a good well behaved indie/pop tune should be. “Feeling Fragile” will be my hangover song and one I wish I had to aid me through all my previous hangovers in the past, but will come in handy the next time I wake up in a house with a strange address in a place I don’t know, with that feeling. “Everything’s broken you know” – Yes I have been there many times before. Now I have a theme tune to wrap my moral failings around.
“Eric” hits my Pixies trip right on the nose. Short song, starts, does what it does, ends. Perfect.
And then they come to “Down” which is a grower of a track. There is more to this song than you get a first, they almost sound angry…breaking the twisty quirky spell that we have encountered so far. Listen to it at least three times and see if you get it too.
The other tracks on the album are all just as good. Hooks and lines and turnarounds, faux floppy/sloppy playing but really tight at the same time. Whispering backing vocals and melodic leads. “Aranis Natas”, I mentioned earlier. So for me the album track that really does it for me is “Bear in Hospital“. A wonderful yet minimalistic song that covers all the bases for good indie rock.
As a debut album, sure it wears it’s influences proudly and there is nothing wrong with that. At the same time Universal Thee do sound different to other bands with the same record collections. I can’t quite put my finger on what that is, maybe because they have a contemporary twist and have filtered it all via 21st Century mores and recording techniques? Or maybe it’s because they were too young to see the New Wave, No Wave and the original Indie Rock phenomena first hand? This only adds a freshness and newness to the genre. Essentially it doesn’t matter though. The end result it what counts. A very good debut album indeed with some cracking songs too. I really regret not seeing them live last Monday.
Universal Thee are still a fairly new band so if they are lucky they won’t be gobbled up by the music industry and perhaps get to make some more good records on their own terms.