Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy June 9, 2003
The latest full-length musical exploration from the New Jersey/New York ensemble Ui is called Answers. For those who won’t hear the disc until Southern releases it later this month, the question asked was “How much can a band really do with locked grooves?”
While post-rock acts like A Minor Forest have written their own bold theses on this question, many of their statements tend to be scripted large: the quiet chime or murmur of guitars violently exploding into a bombastic refrain, the pressure-cooker percussion quickly eroding to a skittering halt. Ui seem to be interested in the same ideas, but they work them out on a smaller – and sometimes more compressed – scale. If nothing else, Answers is a document of how good instrumentals can be written without walls clearly delineating where the verse ends and the chorus begins.
The band paces the record carefully, beginning with “Back Up,” one of the more straightforward and guitar-heavy tracks on the record. On it, we’re enveloped by the band’s slithery two-bass approach, but we’re also treated to a jagged, borderline-furious guitar line that you never would have heard on Tortoise or Millions Now Living Will Never Die. The song is quickly followed by “Get Hot, You Bum” and “Mrs. Lady Lady,” both of which seem to define much of the tone of Answers: smooth and danceable, but far from shallow, dumbed-down, or simple. Each of the songs takes a core bit of sound – part of a bass scale, say, or a few notes on a keyboard – and expands around it, adding highly textured bits of bass, guitar, intricate drums, and electronics.
The strange part is that what bands like Tortoise try to pull off with scope and time, Ui attempts to compress within a few short minutes. The results are interesting, sometimes a hit and sometimes a miss, but always soundscapes that seem to be written and performed in real time, with the players all on the same wavelength. Some of the tracks do seem to stop before the band fully taps their potential, but others seem smart enough to pull the carpet from beneath your feet before they lull you into submission. In this, they seem to share more in common with Pell Mell’s form of instrumental dream-rock than they do with the frequently epic-minded Tortoise.
Unlike Pell Mell, however, Ui seem to fit into their grooves quite naturally, almost instinctively. Proof of this sort of inherent rhythm and swing are all over the new record. There’s the funky sway of “Sunny Nights” and “Please Release Me,” which take their breaths only for the bouncy interplay of guitar and bass. And the chiming Jeff Mueller-esque guitar intro to “The Headache Boat,” which floats like smoke into a sugar-sweet series of bass and keyboard scales. And the head-bopping swagger of “John Fitch Way” or “Banjo,” which actually manages to get a banjo sounding comfortable and smooth in a funky, off-time post-rock romp. The list runs on.
(Someone should also take it upon himself or herself to play Sam Prekop a few measures of “Boxer-Painter,” whose buttery Sea and Cake guitars wade unexpectedly into an ocean of punky bass refrains.)
Then there are the songs on the record that are the reason this band has justifiably generated so much buzz in recent years. The title track is a subtly menacing piece, a plodding march with two bass guitars and drums in tow that gradually gives way to crescendos of screeching feedback and understated electronic whispers that sound like they’ve been pulled from the scratches of a DJ’s turntable. On “Sleep Hold,” the band’s bright electric guitars organically and carefully flow into an intricate bridge of balanced bass and guitar. The whole song is held together by drums and percussion that are light enough to seem like background details but complicated enough to prove absolutely essential to the structure of the band’s voice.
Though the record marks the band’s first full-length collaboration with Skeleton Key figurehead Eric Sanko, it’s surprising to hear how little Sanko’s trademark sounds spring up on Answers. The album-closing “Lullaby” is vintage Sanko, the type of elegiac but pop-conscious ode that defined his vastly under-appreciated solo effort Past Imperfect, Present Tense. But other than that, Sanko seems quite willing to lend his considerable talents to the now-quartet without lending his signatures.
Even without the desired Sanko-isms, however, this record knows how and where to hit the right marks. With the East Coast currently in a haze of unseasonably gray weather, what is there to do with all of this time spent indoors? Well, just ask Ui. They’ve got the answers.