Ultraísta Bring Sophisticated Synth to the Dancefloor on Sister
The band’s resemblance to Thom Yorke’s solo work proves how influential Nigel Godrich really isMusic Reviews Ultraista
Much of Ultraísta’s new album Sister feels like a sibling to Thom Yorke’s solo output, particularly his 2019 album ANIMA. The reference points are everywhere: the warm, driving synth tones on “Tin King,” the euphoric, minor key chord progression on “Ordinary Boy,” the “Atoms for Peace”-esque sparse instrumentals and melody on “Bumblebees.”
These similarities are to be expected: Nigel Godrich is a longtime producer for Radiohead and Thom Yorke (amongst a bevy of other major acts), and this is his own band. The various sonic similarities between Godrich’s production work for Yorke and his own project Ultraísta don’t indicate a shortage of ideas, or that this is some sort of ANIMA b-sides album. It’s quite the contrary, in fact: Sister, the band’s second album—and first release since 2012’s self-titled debut—shows that Godrich is much more responsible for Yorke’s ultra-smooth and warm electronic sound than was previously evident.
By rounding out Ultraísta’s lineup with lead singer Laura Bettinson, perhaps best known by her synth-pop moniker FEMME, alongside Yorke and Godrich’s Atoms for Peace percussionist Joey Waronker, Godrich takes the Yorkeian sonic formula but brings the alien vocals back down to earth with Bettinson’s ultra-clear gorgeous croon. Where songs like Yorke’s “Dawn Chorus” or “And It Rained All Night” sound distant due to the Radiohead frontman’s trademark slurred and muffled voice, these Ultraísta songs (“Harmony” and “The Moon and Mercury”) feel close and human, mostly because of Bettinson’s vocals.
It all kicks off with lead single “Tin King,” an upbeat track that evolves from Bettinson’s voice, a walking bass line and in-your-face drums to a sprawling synth track with a rhythm that recalls Yorke’s “The Eraser.” And in true Yorkeian fashion, Bettinson leads us through a stream of consciousness that leaves us searching for meaning in tone and feeling rather than actual lyrical content: “August in the thirties / David Bowie LPs / I feel abominable / A bomb in a bubble,” she sings. Delivered at a frenetic pace, it’s tough to keep up, but you don’t necessarily have to—this is music to dance to, after all.
Stunning synth blankets Bettinson’s warm voice on “Harmony” as she sings “I don’t need people in my life / I don’t need people you say / I took the advice and I tired but that only worked for so long.” Waronker’s percussion is complex and sophisticated here, elevating the song from a typical midtempo synth track to something approaching dancefloor euphoria. Elsewhere, Waronker’s drumming shines on the groovy “Save It ‘til Later” and “Mariella,” the latter of which would feel right at home as a downbeat companion to “Analyse” from Yorke’s 2006 solo debut.
It’s easy to compare Sister to Thom Yorke’s solo work—two of the three Ultraísta members heavily showcase on his non-Radiohead output—but Ultraísta succeed in their own right, adding new elements unheard on Godrich & co’s collaborations with the legendary Radiohead frontman. Urgent strings provide the backbone to “Anybody” as Bettison pleads “If you wanna go, then please don’t stay / I know you wanna bow out honey, so I won’t get in your way.” The beautiful, delicate album closer “The Moon and Mercury” may be the highlight here, as light synth envelops Bettison’s voice, building to a masterful finale of strings.
Godrich’s work with Ultraísta may not be nearly as wide-ranging as his contributions to Radiohead and Thom Yorke’s music, but fans of both of those projects will find a lot to like on Sister. The album’s sonic landscape more than resembles moments from throughout Yorke’s discography with and without Radiohead, while Bettinson’s lovely vocals add a new fold to Godrich and Waronker’s instantly recognizable previous music outside of Ultraísta—though Sister completely one-ups the band’s debut from eight years ago. Godrich is one of the most legendary producers of our time, so it’s wonderful to hear him in the driver’s seat with his own band. And Sister makes it clear that he’s just as influential in shaping the sound of the other acts he works with, too.