Epic Art-Rock Brilliance from the Universal Thump

by delarue

The Universal Thump’s debut album is finally out: it’s taken the Brooklyn art-rock band two years and three installments, culminating in this lavish, magnificently orchestrated double-cd set. If this album had been released in, say, 1975 – which it could have been, considering its ornately symphonic arrangements and trippy, epic sweep – it would be regarded as a classic today. That designation may have to wait awhile, but for now you can enjoy all eighteen inscrutably beautiful songs on one of the most herculean efforts from any band in recent memory.

One of the things that differentiates the Universal Thump from, say, Pete Gabriel-era Genesis, is the vocals. Frontwoman Greta Gertler reminds of a more serioso Kate Bush and has command of a whole slew of keyboard styles: poignantly artsy Paul Wallfisch-esque rock piano, slinky sly soul, and swirly, quirky 80s synth-pop. The band’s other core member is drummer Adam D Gold, who comes across here as a more terse, nimble Nick Mason (he also plays with intriguing postminimalist instrumentalists Build, and composed a number of instrumental interludes here). Guitarists Tony Scherr and Pete Galub both contribute sweeping, anthemic, David Gilmour-influenced lines, while the bass is handled by either Groove Collective’s Jonathan Maron or Ollabelle’s Byron Isaacs. There are also choirs, a midsize orchestra, and cameos by a long parade of artists from accordionist par excellence Rachelle Garniez to the Throwing Muses’ Tanya Donnelly.

Swimming sets the stage. It’s a bouncy pop epic with a bassoon trading licks with the string section, and a long, murky psychedelic break midway through. A characteristically towering ballad, Grasshoppers juxtaposes apprehension with majestically carefree piano. After an austere, atmospheric tone poem, they bring up the energy for the sweeping Honey Beat, which wouldn’t be out of place on REM’s Reveal album from 1999, that band’s lone and very successful venture into art-rock.

To the Border (Wild Raspberries) evokes the Snow with its balmy atmospherics lit up by twinkly woodwinds,  then shifting to solemnly stately chamber pop. Opening Night is the most dramatic yet maybe the most accessible song here, a carnivalesque take on late-period ELO with a mammoth backup choir, a tuba intro and even a sly baritone guitar solo from Galub: guess that’s just the way things are meant to be with that one. Another real knockout here is Linear Messages, gorgeous and pensive with elegant orchestral swells and a dark Balkan-tinged carnival interlude fueled by Garniez’ accordion. After another brief intermezzo (contributed by John Ellis on bass clarinet), they end the first disc with The Last Time, a distantly sad, slow ballad that sounds like a young, inspired Kate Bush taking a stab at Procol Harum.

The second disc wastes no time in setting an epic tone with Darkened Sky, driven at first by Gertler’s alternately austere and searching piano, then by Scherr’s guitar, which kicks off a long, hypnotically nebulous Rick Wright-style interlude that looms in and pushes the piano and vocals to the edge of the picture. Ban Melisma starts out funny and then gets dark fast, with more ominously sustained cumulo-nimbus guitar from Scherr. They blend Pink Floyd and trip-hop with Dwell, capped off by a tersely Gilmouresque Scherr solo, then switch to a lushly bubbly, period-perfect, artsy mid-70s disco vibe for Flora, an inspiring, true story of a komodo dragon who gave birth via parthogenesis.

Likewise, Teacher takes the not-so-easy life of a conservatory student and makes a parable out of it: Galub and Gold follow each other with an irresistibly cool series of guitar cameos, with a powerfully soaring lead vocal from guest Lucy Woodward. Snowbird, the most pensively direct number here, evokes Jenifer Jackson, Maron adding an understatedly soaring bass solo before the long, ominously psychedelic trail out begins. The album closes with Only an Ocean, a throwback to the jaunty ragtime-flavored songs that Gertler had so much fun with on her previous solo album Edible Restaurant, Garniez and violinist Zach Brock adding a jaunty vaudevillian edge. Those are just two of the literally hundreds of clever twists, turns, jokes and knife’s-edge moments throughout this luscious slab of vintage art-rock with a fresh flavor. The band encourages listeners to enjoy a slice of cake with ice cream between its four “chapters,” a suggestion worth considering. Like a lot of the A-list of New York bands, the Universal Thump have a wider global following than they do here (Gertler originally hails from Australia). They’re currently on US tour; the full schedule is here. You can also catch the band playing a delightful live set streaming on demand from WFMU.