profile of DougWallen

Radiohead producer steps out on debut with Ultraista

Ultraista
Ultraista
(Create/Control)

When Nigel Godrich starts a band, people perk their ears. While the hand of the Radiohead guru doesn’t guarantee a project’s success, it’s enough to get us talking. Ultraista is the newish trio of singer Laura Bettinson with Godrich and fellow multi-instrumentalist/producer Joey Waronker (Beck, Elliott Smith, REM). It’s impossible not to compare parts of it to Radiohead – more on that soon – but this self-titled debut stands quite well on its own. It plays like a humble labour of love, only pulled off with sneaky panache and flashing charismatic influences along the way.

Afrobeat and Kraut-pop are cited in the press kit, but you could just as easily call this synth-pop: there are lots of synths, and it’s definitely pop. Whatever you call it, the consistent source of delight is the layering and entwining of vocals and rhythms. It’s masterfully done while still feeling low-key, a quality heightened by Bettinson’s often dry, untouchable delivery. She goes for a blankness that can summon Chairlift’s Carolina Polachek and Broadcast’s late Trish Keegan, although she embraces different tacks too, sometimes on the same song. The way ‘Easier’ uses her malleable voice, it’s as if she’s conversing with herself in alternate guises.

That’s just one of many nifty tricks here. The production is great while being totally understated and open-air. There may be buzzing and pulsing warmth always within reach, but this is all about the ticklish use of dub, Afrobeat and trip-hop cadences while Bettinson favours a mantra approach to lyrics not so far from Thom Yorke. She pulls sticky little refrains out of thin air, as heard on ‘Wash It Over’ and ‘Smalltalk’. That fits the cyclical bent to the music on tracks like ‘Party Line’ and lead single ‘Bad Insect’, again exploring different subtle ways to form a rhythmic spine.

Any Radiohead vibe is mostly a peripheral thing, but the closing ‘You’re Out’ does sound particularly Kid A-ish, its bed of stuttered vocals and that wayward synth glow conjuring a sequel to ‘Everything in its Right Place’. That said, let’s not understate how vital Bettinson’s vocal work is on this record: she lends a lot of variety in her phrasing and just as much subtext in the half-mysterious lyrics. Only in her mid-20s, she already has the projects Femme and Dimbleby & Capper to her name, and it’s easy to see what Godrich and Waronker value in her as a collaborator.

She might just be the secret weapon in Ultraista: for all her restraint, she brings a human vulnerability to the endless, circuit-like interlocking of sounds and ideas.

Doug Wallen

profile of DougWallen

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