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Richard Youngs (b. 1966)
Beyond The Valley Of Ultrahits
Songwriter, Performer Ð Richard Youngs
Recorded in Bamburgh, Glasgow and Harpenden: March - May 2009.
For an impulsive exercise, Beyond the Valley of Ultrahits is almost shockingly sophisticated. I say "almost" because this is Richard Youngs we're talking about, and nothing he's done has ever sounded tossed off or undercooked. But when I heard last year that the Scot best known for minimalism, noise, and avant-folk had made a "proper pop album" on a friend's dare, and released it as a low-run CD-R, I expected some kind of fun trifle-- maybe his equivalent of Pussy Galore's Exile on Main Street cassette, or the infamous bootleg of Boredoms' Yamatsuka Eye doing "Born to Be Wild" in a karaoke bar.
Instead, Ultrahits (now reissued on vinyl by Jagjaguwar) is a thoughtful, carefully-crafted set of melodic gems. Not that it's overly controlled-- Youngs definitely had fun with this experiment, and many songs are practically giddy compared to his typical solemn mantras. But it sounds as if he put as much time and effort into this album as any before. The beats are nimble and rich, ranging from rock-ish to techno-tinged. Bass lines slide craftily around melodies; organ drones arc into rainbows; and vocals waft over verses and double during choruses, often sounding like British folk crossed with Motown soul. Every tune has a distinct sonic template, as Youngs clearly worked to find a new set of sounds for each.
What's most impressive about the effort behind Ultrahits isn't the amount, but how it always serves the simplicity of Youngs' songwriting. Repetition has always been his favorite tool, and here he discovers many ways to turn chants into hooks. "I had an idea/ With thoughts of collapsing stars/ That I wanted to see/ Your thoughts of collapsing stars," he sings in "Collapsing Stars", a spritely counterpart to "Cluster to a Star" from last year's Zen hymnal Under Stellar Steam. If that album was a bedtime suite of hypnotic lullabies, think of Ultrahits as an alternate-universe pop station playing on your clock radio the next morning.
Actually, the universe in which these songs could play on the radio isn't that far from ours. This album's title may be self-deprecatingly ironic, but these are confident, accessible tunes by an artist who has often injected melody into even his most difficult work. The converse is also true-- even the brightest tunes here have a dark underside. Take the rubbery "Summer Void", which evokes New Zealand songsmiths like Robert Scott and David Kilgour. "I remember when I had nothing to do/ The void is a dreadful thing," he sings in a carefree lilt. "I remember the joy of self-defeat/ The void is a dreadful thing." Richard Youngs can now add pop to the list of skills he's mastered, but he couldn't go soft if he tried. -- Pitchfork