Ultimate Painting is the name of the collaboration between James Hoare (Veronica Falls, The Proper Ornaments) and Jack Cooper (Mazes), as well as the name of their album and the first song on it. The duo play a defiantly and aggressively unambitious style that could be called “good taste rock”, eschewing notions of innovation or newness, and simply cranking out really good tunes in a very familiar, stripped-down rock vein. That’s not a jab– Ultimate Painting‘s songs fit perfectly onto their well-worn sonic templates. They might nick grooves and sounds wholesale from their forebears, but the pair have their own distinctive songwriting voices, and they deliver sly, subtle pop hooks on every track. It’s like they view “Velvet Underground” or “Kinks” as classic rhythms or musical styles like “waltz” or “shuffle”, as much as bands. Songs from before they were born serve as springboards. This is slightly different than the straight pastiche style of, say, The Dukes Of Stratosphear, or His Name Is Alive‘s warped re-imagining of “Good Vibrations”. It could come off as lazy or uninspired, but I think Ultimate Painting’s approach works as an extremely focused type of pop classicism: they take favorite sounds from the past, very specific ones (often from different groups and songs), and fit them together like Tetris blocks to form a very firm foundation for their own songs, which are carefully laid on top.
The album is sequenced so that the two songwriters take turns offering songs, starting with Jack Cooper’s title track. “Ultimate Painting” quickly (as in within a few notes) reveals Cooper’s modus operandi for his contributions: clean, unadorned electric guitars played exactly in the distinctive, R&B-derived style of Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed on the post-John Cale Velvet Underground records, coupled with half-sung, half-spoken (but still quite melodic) vocals. His “Talking Central Park Blues” sounds like the instrumental backing of “What Goes On”, but with a vocal performance that evokes a British version of David Lowery in Camper Van Beethoven, singing a melody from Brian Eno‘s “St. Elmo’s Fire”. Similarly, “Ten Street” is “Foggy Notion”, only with a melody and vocals that sound straight out of the Kinks‘ own stripped-down, distortion-free period, and ending with dueling, overlapped fuzz-tone guitar solos that were plucked right out of Love‘s “A House Is Not A Motel”. Despite all the nods to other bands, Cooper’s own melodic sense and songcraft shine through all of his material here.
James Hoare’s style is dreamier, and his influences are harder to pinpoint. Everything still sounds oddly familiar, but there are no obvious song precedents/molds, compared to Cooper’s VU groove. His songs here, particularly “Can’t You See”, are very much in the same vein as his material on the excellent Wooden Head (on Slumberland) by his other duo, The Proper Ornaments. That was one of my favorite albums of 2014, and I was quite happy to hear more like it on the Ultimate Painting record. Hoare has a soft, pretty voice, and sings in a mannered, detached style reminiscent of David Gilmour, often harmonizing with himself. In fact, his songs suggest an alternate-world Pink Floyd in which the band skipped the long-form porcelain space blues, and instead continued down the pop-psych route after the departure of Syd Barrett, only with slightly slower tempos. There are hints of the sleepier moments of Teenage Fanclub, The Jesus And Mary Chain, Opal, and The Rain Parade in all of Hoare’s offerings here.
The album generally foregoes all psychedelic trappings in favor of a hushed, bare production style. There’s a tiny bit of reverb on the guitars and vocals, but none of the echoey, distorted, or otherwise-smeary recording gimmicks that have been so prevalent on comparable classic-pop-inspired albums of recent years. And it’s a decidedly non-rocking affair. I don’t think anybody ever hits a cymbal on Ultimate Painting; the drums consist almost exclusively of simple, gently-played kick and snare patterns. Cooper and Hoare seem to be deliberately trying to evoke the unexpected, skeletal production moves of albums like Wild Honey, The Velvet Underground, Darklands, and Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround, Vol. 1.
One notable exception is “She’s A Bomb”, the only track to feature Cooper and Hoare trading lead vocal lines. It’s hard to tell if it’s Cooper’s song (as its placement in the album sequence would suggest), or a full-on collaboration between him and Hoare. It begins with some trippy tape-delay feedback effects and old-sounding drum machine, and then quickly morphs into a great Nuggets- or Paisley Underground-inspired lost classic. It ends with Cooper doing a spoken word bit over spare piano. Placed second-to-last on the album, it serves as a nice splash of vivid color before Hoare’s gorgeous, Teenage Fanclub-esque “Winter In Your Heart” returns things to the muted palette, and brings the record to a close.
I’ve been listening to this album a lot, for weeks now. It sounds (probably deceptively) like it was fun and easy to make. And it’s filled with my favorite kind of hooks: the ones that don’t stick the first time you hear them, but reveal themselves a little bit with each listen.
Ultimate Painting is out now on Trouble In Mind Records.
Here’s the title track:
and a nice live version of “Winter In Your Heart”: