Singer/keyboardist Greta Gertler Gold was about eight months pregnant when she played her most recent show, at Barbes about six weeks ago, with her art-rock band the Universal Thump. If that’s not punk rock, you figure out what is.
The Universal Thump’s music is actually not punk at all – it’s lush, and ornate, and meticulously crafted…and an awful lot of fun. Their 2012 debut album was an epic double-cd set awash in lavish orchestration, theatrics, dynamic shifts and symphonic majesty. one of the most rewardingly herculean efforts by any band in recent years. Their new, second album, Walking the Cat – recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London, and streaming at Bandcamp – is less hefty but no less fun. The opening track, Sunset Park – a tribute to their Brooklyn home turf – pairs drummer/percussionist Adam D Gold’s pointillistic celeste with his wife’s cautiously scampering piano and soaring, stratospheric vocals, buoyed by a tiptoeing string arrangement played by violist Anne Lanzilotti and cellist Brian Snow.
The second track, Cockatoos, is Gretler Gold at her most brooding and plaintive, a briskly strolling tone poem of sorts: “I never fell so hard, I never fell so far,” she relates. Then the band picks up the pace with the ep’s poppiest song, Watch the Sunrise, Barney McAll doing a fair impersonation of a snarling, distorted electric guitar with his synth midway through.
J. Walter Hawkes’ multitracked trombone builds grey-sky ambience as the piano rises to an uneasy peak in Treehouse. Jonathan Maron’s lithe bassline pairs with the piano as the album’s psychedelic, mightily crescendoing title track picks up steam, Elysian Fields guitarist Oren Bloedow channeling George Harrison while Gertler Gold’s organ bubbles and ripples…and then the band builds in a second to a droll, lickety-split sprint. As with the best psychedelic music, nothing here is exactly what it seems: there’s a moody edge underneath all the playful exuberance. As short albums go, there’s hardly been anything released in 2015 that’s this consistently good.
The Barbes show also deserves a mention. Rather than bringing his swirly Hohner Electrovox from his days in the late, great Chicha Libre, guest Josh Camp played piano while Gertler Gold shifted between textures on her Nord Electro. Who knew he was such a good C&W slip-key player? Another of the band’s charter members, guiter maven Pete Galub led the group through a breathlessly droll cover of XTC’s Making Plans for Nigel.
Much as Gertler Gold has always had an impressive top end to her high soprano, she’s never sung better than she did at this show, not just sailing along but genuinely searing at the very top of her register. Like so many bands these days, the Universal Thump have considerably more material than they’ve been able to record: this show gave them a chance to air out a couple of oldschool soul-informed numbers as well as a handful of tongue-in-cheek, sardonic Passover songs written for a theme night at Joe’s Pub, one a sultry minor-key tune and the other more upbeat. Among the best songs of the night was an amped-up, especially restless take of Cockatoos; the band closed with a triumphant version of Walking the Cat. Gertler Gold promises not to let motherhood keep her from the stage; watch this space for upcoming shows from one of this era’s great art-rock bands.