Music

Ultramarine: This Time Last Year

The first album in 15 years from the ambient-house pioneers finds them getting a fresh lease on chill.


Ultramarine

This Time Last Year

Label: Real Soon
US Release Date: 2013-10-15
UK Release Date: 2013-10-07
Artist Website
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Like many acts that broke through during the first big wave of electronica in the early 1990s, Ultramarine will forever be associated with one album. That album is their debut, Every Man and Woman Is a Star.

Released in 1992, that album fit right in with the psychedelic, ethereal "ambient house" or "chill out" music of acts like the Orb, KLF, and Aphex Twin. Ultramarine's Ian Cooper and Paul Hammond were nature-loving would-be hippies who thanked Birkenstock sandals in their liner notes. Every Man and Woman is a Star translated that pastoral ethos into music that was full of breezy, midtempo rhythms and shaded in with traditional instruments like violin and harmonica. The album is often cited as the genesis of what some have called "folktronica".

Interestingly enough, folk and "folktronica" are hot items again, 20 years later. You could argue Avicii's international smash "Wake Me Up" takes the basic blueprint laid down by Ultramarine and their peers and follows it to a natural, uptempo, chart-friendly conclusion.

But Ultramarine themselves have not been idle in the interim. Following the critical success of the debut, they released follow-up United Kingdoms on a major label in 1993. Featuring cult progressive rock icon Robert Wyatt, the album took Cooper's and Hammond's more tie-dye leanings even further. It was a critical and commercial failure. Taking a step back in profile, the duo released two further albums in the 1990s, Bel Air (1995) and A User's Guide (1998). These albums explored more then-trendy sounds like trip-hop and abstract techno.

After a 13-year absence, Cooper and Hammond reconvened Ultramarine and released a couple of EPs in 2011. Now comes This Time Last Year. Cooper and Hammond have finally, after many years and several false starts, produced an album that follows through on the strengths of their debut while also expanding and deepening their musical palate in positive ways. Much of Every Man and Woman is a Star now sounds tinny, stiff, and a bit naïve, results due as much to the technology of the time as to the men employing it. This Time Last Year, however, is rich and layered without sacrificing the careful simplicity that has always been Ultramarine's strength.

"Within Reach" uses simple, sad tremolo guitar chords to great effect. But here, Cooper and Hammond aren't satisfied with the comforting bed of sound. As more abstract synthesizer tones come to the fore, the sense of peaceful contemplation is replaced by one of unease. Closer "Imaginary Letters" comes closest to the sound Ultramarine made their name with. This time it's the synths providing the sad tones, as an arpeggio guitar floats over the top. A pulsating, almost tribal electronic rhythm establishes itself, temporarily putting the mood of the track in question. Soon enough, though, the synths float back in, saturating the rhythm in good vibes. "Imaginary Letters" just might be the most perfect track Ultramarine have released to date.

This Time Last Year explores other permutations of mellow electronica as well. "Technique" and "Even Then", with their clipped electronic handclaps, are almost mathematical in their precision. The latter recalls fellow British electronica pioneers Future Sound of London at their best. "Find My Way" is another highlight, a looped trip-hop bassline and mysterious vocal samples making for an evocative trip. Some listeners might find the jazzy soul of "Eye Contact" forced. "Sidetracked", with minimal hi-hats and dubby panning effects, sounds like it came easily.

A lot has happened in the world of electronic music since Every Man and Woman is a Star made such an impression. But after a long hiatus, with This Time Last Year Ultramarine prove second impressions can be pretty strong, too.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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