No one could ever accuse Ultimate Painting of self-indulgence. Across two albums – their 2014 self-titled debut and 2015’s Green Lanes – songwriters/guitarists Jack Cooper and James Hoare have defined a compellingly particular, art-pop sound that marries the wiry minimalism of Velvet Underground’s third LP with the jangling drive of Flying Nun flagship acts like The Chills and The Beatles’ dreamy melodicism. There are echoes of their respective former bands, Mazes and Veronica Falls, but as Ultimate Painting, economy of both music and lyrics is key. It’s something the two have focused on even more intently for their third record, Dusk, which features Melissa Rigby (ex S.C.U.M.) on drums, and was produced by Hoare in his north London home.
As the title suggests, it’s an irresistibly penumbral and reflective set, that cuts lean, insistent pop with paisley-folk languor in songs that address everything from financial despair (first single, “Bills”) and the frisson of catching an old friend’s glance in an anonymous public space (“Monday Morning, Somewhere Central”) to the fate of a late Rolling Stone (“Song For Brian Jones”). An electric Wurlitzer – bought by Hoare because he thought it would work well on poignant closing track, “I Can’t Run Anymore” and because both he and Cooper admire Portishead’s Dummy and Air’s Moon Safari – features heavily. Guitars are less dominant than before and the whole is washed with a tantalisingly non-specific nostalgia.
“There was a definite idea to give it a different sound,” explains Hoare, “because the first two records were similar in sound, so we wanted to make it even more stripped back and sparser. When we started putting it together, we sort of lost track of that a bit, then brought it back as we progressed. It was a case of wanting to progress and not do the same thing again, but also of nailing what we like about the band – and honing what that element is. Our songs are served best when there’s an economy to the arrangements and to the playing.”
Sound – and its emotional impact – matters more to Ultimate Painting than style per se and they’re unapologetic geeks in that regard, drawn to artists as diverse as Dr Dre, Stan Getz and Sun Ra through a similarity of sonic effect that’s hard for them to define. “It’s not that the playing or the musicianship of those records translates to our music,” Cooper says, of the jazz and bossa nova sounds they both love, “but it’s the feel of them. I hadn’t listened to much Stan Getz before and James bought me the Stan Getz/Astrud Gilberto record, Getz Au Go Go, when we were in America last year. We don’t play like that, but sonically, there’s something very similar between it and us. We pay attention to frequencies and sounds that a lot of modern musicians don’t. And the way something like Yo La Tengo’s Painful or the Ritchie Valens song, ‘In A Turkish Town’ makes me feel is the same way our music, when it’s really good, makes me feel. I think part of James and me doing music is us trying to figure out why those things influence us.”
The shadowy coolness and bittersweet lyrical tone of Dusk – most apparent on “Song For Brian Jones”, “Skippool Creek” and “I Can’t Run Anymore” – are almost as much a result of when it was written, as who wrote it, according to Cooper, who grew up on the north coast, outside Blackpool. “It’s difficult to be two people from rural England and to write and record in the English autumn and be happy-go-lucky,” he reasons, “especially at the moment. I generally have a more optimistic outlook than James, but the songs that I’ve written have always had a melancholy core to them.” Adds Devon-born Hoare: “That’s generally my approach to songwriting and it always has been, because of my mental outlook – I suffer from depression and I’m reflective. I can’t write upbeat songs, so that explains some of the album’s feel.”
The line between retroism (a style) and nostalgia (an emotion) is often blurred, but Dusk has nothing to do with the former. “Neither of us are interested in being a retro band,” confirms Cooper. “But there are qualities to records made in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, like their frequencies, that feel warm and good and thus conjure up nostalgic feelings.” He reckons that music has become “obsessed with pushing things forward, or being progressive and it seems very strange to me. You can’t be influenced by the future, so why should some people have decided how far back it’s okay to go?”
It’s interpretation, not imitation that defines Ultimate Painting’s attitude to the past, and with Dusk they’ve naturally outgrown the earlier overt influence of The Velvet Underground. That said, John Cale remains a touchstone, particularly for Hoare. “I’m a big fan,” he enthuses, “especially of the record Fear; it’s one of my favourites – minimal and almost proto punk at times, and it features beautiful piano ballads. I was listening to it at the time I wrote ‘Lead The Way’, which was composed on the spot. The whole thing was done in three minutes or so.”
Such confident quickness is only possible when a band understands itself very well, as Ultimate Painting do. Coolly economical, understatedly intimate and with pop poise by the crate load, Dusk is a triumph. It may be their third album, but it’s also a kind of dawning.