Review: The Delgados – “Universal Audio”

In a lot of ways, The Delgados’ Universal Audio is the pop-rock record that scores of bands have been struggling — and, quite honestly, failing — to make in recent years (or, at least, struggling to make since Oasis and their photostatic copies seemed to go the way of the buffalo).

 

The record’s “sound” is thankfully, pleasantly tough to pin down, a mix of cross-pollinated genres and approaches that seem to click as a more cohesive but far from labored whole. And the focal points on the 11 tracks, far from feeling disjointed, all seem to contain some of the more radio-friendly but carefully considered pop and pop-rock moments you’ve probably heard in a while.

The listener gets acoustic ballads, guitar-driven rock exercises, poppy refrains, and jazz-inflected asides in a single package, and at no point does it really feel that the Scottish quartet is overextending itself or sacrificing the vitality of its work for the ability to slap the name of another sonic digression on the board.

That being said, different listeners will clearly cite different moments on the record as the band’s most-realized work. And that’s fine.

The band even seems to thrive in the spaces it can create between compositions, the kind of distance they can create between tender acoustic pop and more textured and occasionally edgy fare. There are great arguments for both on Universal Audio, though the latter seems to be the first that grabs you on giving the disc a spin.

The Delgados show a passion tempered by precision and a bit of restraint on the sometimes-pounding/sometimes-pensive album-opener “I Fought the Angels,” and they prove themselves adept at coloring traditional pop with dense composition and atmospheric flourishes on gems like “Come Undone,” the infectious rhythms and sensual vocal delivery of “Keep on Breathing,” and the inventive, near-psychedelic patchwork of “Bits of Bone.”

All could be called the record’s best tracks and with good reason. The acoustic moments are just as illuminating — from the smoky swing and sway of “Sink or Swim” to the bouncy, Beatlesque intro to “Get Action!” to the dark reflections of the frighteningly beautiful and mournful “The City Consumes Us.”

Then there’s the stuff you should be hearing ad infinitum on your local multinational-operated radio station. (Why aren’t you? Insert Payola reference here.)

Take “Is This All That I Came For?,” a pseudo-single that bounces between straight-forward pop-rock verses and expansive choruses complete with multiple vocal and guitar tracks and the background click-click-clack of a kick-drum pedal, or the bubblegum bounce of “Everybody Come Down” and “Girls of Valour,” which acknowledge the airiness of their manners with 70s-style keyboard inserts and full-band choral breakdowns, respectively.

The Delgados balance this lean toward the studio-bright and commercially accessible not only with their more atypical tracks but with lyrics that you wouldnít expect to accompany music that can feel this sweet and light.

Consider these lines, which are spoken over piano in a breathy, deceptively romantic whisper at the beginning of “The City Consumes Us:” “Streets like the rest of them that I can’t forget / Faces familiar and full of regret / I hated this place and those who came from it.” Not exactly the type of thing you’d expect to hear from a band adept at concocting this brand of pop melodies and listeners may appreciate that. Listeners may also appreciate the sincerity The Delgados lend to the proceedings.

While many lesser acts seem to throw together hooks as a means of just landing on the air or paving the way for their “real projects,” The Delgados seem genuinely engaged in the work, something that could lead more than a few sets of ears to be genuinely engaged in them. – Delusions of Adequacy, Dec. 13, 2004

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