As I was skimming through the Ultrasounds' press release, a refreshingly frank quote caught my eye. "People don't want to hear songs about how bad things suck all the time," says lead guitarist Patrick Betzold. "Sometimes people just want to dance." And that's exactly what I wanted to do when I saw them a few weeks back at the Barn. Their retro vibe and dead-on pop sensibility had me thinking, "I can mashed potato!" But I knew I'd be sorely out of place among all the cool kids bobbing their heads with amazing restraint.
During the appropriately surf-rock opening act, a demure-looking girl listened with her hands in the pockets of her hoodie. When the Ultrasounds' turn came, I was surprised to see her sit down to play drums. I was even more surprised to see Sara Griffin go at it with such fervor and even, on occasion, take the lead vocal as well. Although her mike wasn't quite loud enough at the show, I got a chance to hear Griffin's sweet voice on their new album, The Way Things Were. Her girlish vocals are almost twee in their precious leanings, but their peppiness fits right in with the band's flashback aesthetic. Matched up with Betzold's catchy, slick riffs on songs like "Why Don't We Leave?" Griffin's voice almost makes one wonder why she isn't the lead singer.
But Christopher Smith's versatility shines through on the album, proving that he's right where he belongs. On "You Don't Even Know" he sounds like a less whiny Ben Folds. And if it weren't one of the biggest clichés in music reviews, I'd say he occasionally channels a young Paul McCartney, especially when he puts a bit more force into it and lets his voice crack a little. (At their show, he even wore a jacket that wouldn't be out of place on the Sgt. Pepper cover.)
Get ready for another faux pas: "The Easy Way Back," my fave track on the album, is downright Beatlesque. It occurs to me, as I listen, that The Way Things Were is an apt title, not only because it conjures the sounds of the sixties but also because it acknowledges its own nostalgia.
Much as the Ultrasounds encourage virtual time travel, I'm reminded of the great cultural critic Fredric Jameson's injunction to "Always historicize!" To put these musicians where they belong — in the twenty-first century — perhaps it would be more accurate to say they're British-Invasion-meets-early-aught-years-indie-pop: think an edgier version of the Strokes, or the Libertines' first album. The aesthetic may be old, but it's still hip, man — and totally cravable.
The Ultrasounds are at the Club Above on Saturday, August 2, and at TC's Speakeasy on Saturday, August 30.
[Review published August 2008]