Holy shit. Yes. Why reform without true purpose, and how much better when you’ve grasped it? In the wake of a riot-torn English August (and twelve years after imploding into a cloud of soiled tinsel) Ultrasound burst back into life, their idiot-savant knack of transmuting outsider vanity and navel-gazing into shared Britpop anthems now regenerated with a vengeance.
If they’re still harking back to the ’70s with their punk-raw attack, their epic classic-rock scale and their dirty storms of psychedelic sleet, that’s fine. It’s not as if the worst parts of the 1970s aren’t already washing back to us: the flailing economy, the strikes, the embezzlements and resentments. Rudely uncoupled from the lives we expected, shoved back to childish helplessness, punch-drunk with the rage simmering under our good behaviour… perhaps we need some growling mongrel ’70s spirit to grab onto.
It seems appropriate that it should come from these guys; the tangle of scraggy-looking oddballs who, back in 1998, briefly seemed to be stumbling into the role of people’s band – flaws, delusions and all. Back then their hulking singer Tiny broke all of the rules for being a pop frontman (too old, too weird and unpretty, too gloriously fat). Yet he played both Peter Pan and Pied Piper to a slice of teenaged music fans, who found inspiration in the way he stood stubbornly in the heart and guts of his long-past adolescence and sang out its fear and wonder. Then the band imploded and died in a welter of recriminations, self-indulgence and selfishness; and as their collective corpse bounced chin-first down every hard concrete step they’d climbed up, we watched them crash from inspiration to sorry memory, from joke to obscurity to lonely pub quiz question.
Several pop generations on, they’ve picked themselves up, casually blinked away a decade, and returned in full flush with a double single concentrating everything that made them great in the first place. Welfare State (vulgar, inspirational, coming in like The Who carpet-bombing ‘The X-Factor’) is a rallying call for Tiny’s army of “filthy, fly-blown fools.” It’s also a celebration of the band’s return to action and a two-fingered statement of dole-culture entitlement. It resonates eerily with the grand smash-and-grab which blighted the English summer of 2011, especially when a burglar alarm bleeds into the psychedelic stew midway though.
Don’t expect consistency – only a few breaths away from eulogizing heroic working mums, Tiny can exult “we’ve never done a day’s work in our lives” as the band cook up a flaring riff behind him. But as they rage at suppression and disappointment, and as the song turns into a sweeping cavalcade of outcast celebration (“We are the greasy unwashed scum, we are the paupers on the run”) it’s hard not to be carried along.
It makes more sense set against its parallel flipside, the Dennis Potter-inspired anthem Sovereign: here, Ultrasound expose a mucky vegetable heart in a soup of soiled aspiration and strayed Catholic imagery. In comparison to Welfare State’s foolhardy confidence, it starts in shit and sins and only gradually grows roses. Initially stars, notes and shame all melt downwards out of a vast gloomy sky while Tiny pleads for hope – “All this mess and grime and snail-slime / makes life…” By the climax (with volatile bassist Vanessa Best adding her magnificent soul howl, and the sky lit up with blazing guitars), it’s somehow turned into the Ascent of Man: transfigured out of guilt into an invigorating, painful rush of honesty.
There’s still no sign that Ultrasound have grown up – that, I suspect, would be missing the point – but their desire to simply grow, like a gnarled defiant tree, has never been stronger.
ULTRASOUND: ‘Welfare State/Sovereign’
Label Fandango, ULTRA001t
7-inch vinyl/download single
Released: 29th August 2011