Young Galaxy have written a killer opening song ("Pretty Boy"), and then they spend the rest of Ultramarine trying to reach that same level of success without ever quite making it.
Ultramarine, the fourth album by Young Galaxy, sets a high bar for itself with its opening song, "Pretty Boy". The track opens with a simple, catchy synth loop and an insistent kick drum beat, and then adds a pretty counter-loop to the main loop that fades in and out as the song goes along. Catherine McCandless' smooth vocals pile on top of the loops with simple verses and a warm, inviting chorus: "And I know you feel isolated / And I feel what you won't say / I don't care if the disbelievers don't understand / You're my pretty boy, always." Snare drum beats and string accompaniments round out the song, but really, the two loops and McCandless' vocals are all the track needs. It's a near-perfect synth-pop track.
For a little while, it seems like Young Galaxy has the chops to make a full album that's almost as good as "Pretty Boy", but they ultimately can't pull it off. Second track "Fall for You" has a bit of an afrobeat feel, with big, echoing toms and spare, irregular beats. McCandless adds about three or four layers of vocal harmony to add to that feeling. It helps that the song has a weird, compelling lyrical premise involving working in some sort of pop music mine to make other songs come true in the surface world. Third track "New Summer" at first feels like a downbeat misstep, but the song blossoms in the pre-chorus as McCandless sings "So meet me by the river / Let's go for a ride / With the windows down and the stereo loud!" The passionate way she delivers the words "stereo loud" pushes the song into the chorus, and it helps that there's an underlying warmth to the synth chords that pulse beneath the vocals.
But after these first three songs, Young Galaxy seems to lose their way a bit, and the tracks sort of fade into a pleasant but unmemorable rut. The dance track "Fever" has a decent beat, but aside from some unusual vocal harmony in the refrain there isn't much about the song that pops. "What We Want" has nice lyrical imagery and a good mission statement, "I don't need authenticity to make me more like me." But there are no hooks in the music that live up to the compelling words. "Out the Gate Backwards" is dominated by a funky piano line that is super-cool, but that's the only thing that really works in the song. McCandless' vocal delivery in particular is surprisingly bland on this song.
It's only on the album's final two tracks that Ultramarine picks up again. "Privileged Poor" has the feel of '80s synth-pop, from the drum machine beat to the keyboard tones to the gratuitous cowbell hits. It sounds different from everything else on the album, so even though McCandless' drawn out refrain of "Privileeeeeeged poooor" is sort of buried in the background, the unique sound of the song makes up for it. Closer "Sleepwalk With Me" also has a bit of an '80s sheen, but it is characterized by high-pitched, steel drum-like synth sounds. McCandless finally gets to take center stage again here, singing the song's title as the refrain. That refrain is an instant earworm that dances right on the edge of annoyingly catchy. But after five or six songs with middling or downright weak choruses, one welcomes something catchy, even if it is annoying. While the album never again reaches the heights of "Pretty Boy", it's never less than solid. McCandless has a great voice, and when Young Galaxy gives her strong material their songs really work. But she can't do it on her own, and the middle chunk of Ultramarine proves that.