Ultralife – Oh Wonder (2017)

‘Oh Wonder’ are a London based musical pop duo consisting of Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West with “Ultralife” being their 2nd studio album.

Their self titled debut album from 2015 had some superb synth pop and mellow numbers such as the opening track on that album “Livewire” which I feel captured the essence of the duo.

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With “Ultralife” there is a continuation of this trend and the first track “Solo” shows the understated sound of ‘Oh Wonder’ pour through with the typical unison singing Vander Gucht and West share.

The vocal from Vander Gucht is at times a little overpowering but at the same time West’s voice is not exactly strong and serves more as a one tone backing vocal.

I have listened to the Vinyl of this album and also the digital release in the car and on headphones and there is definitely a distortion on this on which sounds very unpleasant and I don’t understand why this was deemed to be something that would appeal to the listener.

The title track “Ultralife” is the best produced track on the album with far richer instrumentation used on this than any of the others. This is a bigger song in scale and the chorus is infectious and it gives off a very happy vibe. This is a extremely uplifting song with no pretext of anything sexual but about living life to the full.

I still can hear this distortion. And it’s not my speakers!

“Lifetimes” again see the duo showcase their melodic nous with an extremely catchy mellow tune. The vocal from Vander Gucht is quite child like in it’s pitch but works on most tracks and this one is a good example of that.

“High On Humans” is one of the very few fuller produced tracks on this album. I’m a bit unsure about this song as the production doesn’t sound tuned into the vocal and sounds a little detached. The melody is a little grating and even the sentiment of the song is just a little too sickly sweet with it basically being about loving talking to people and how fucking great that is. But no doubt you’ll be singing the chorus after one listen because that’s what ‘Oh Wonder’ are able to get you to do.

Our fifth track is “All About You”. This is a very strong track and works because of it’s simplicity. A lot of the songs on this album have very skeletal instrumentation and I feel this hinders quite a few of the tracks but not on this one. The melody and vocal harmony is spot on and again the hook is catchy and infectious.

“Heavy” is my favourite songs on the album and one of my favourite songs of 2017. I loved this song the moment I heard it and it has been on constant rotation since I first came across it. It does have it’s issues as again the instrumentation and all round production is not strong enough. It sounds a little like a demo on a keyboard that they were working the song to but just left it in but it has so much potential.

When the bring the synths up on the pre chorus it sounds a little like “Blinded by the lights” by The Streets which is another song I adore. Vander Gucht sounds superb in her delivery and whilst there is a point where things seem to go a little off key it remains a firm favourite.

The wrong side of sickly sweet is found on “Bigger Than Love” but in fairness to the song it is the chorus that just doesn’t sit well with me. The verses sound lush and velvety but the chorus just makes me fake vomit just a tad. I do see positives in the track and the unison vocals sounds as if two people are singing this about each other which gives the song some genuine intimacy.

“Heartstrings” doesn’t push the boundaries lyrically but again Oh Wonder create a clean and friendly pop song. It’s pure sing-a-long music with a inoffensive sound to make you feel good. Do Oh Wonder succeed? On a track such as this they absolutely do.

Track 9 is “Slip Away”. This song has the fewest lyrics of any of the tracks but packs more of a punch in it’s short tale of a relationship that has ended despite much left to be said.

The instrumentation is rich but minimal with the keyboard and bass doing most of the work in what is a very pretty track.

“Overgrown” sounds like an amalgamation of a few of the tracks we have already heard and doesn’t pack the punch melodically that they have previously done. The song bobs along but doesn’t really go anywhere.

The penultimate track is “My Friends”. This is a piano ballad and a departure from most of the previous track. The lesser vocal from Anthony West is very important on this track because it adds a texture that is gives the song a further expression that the vocal from Vander Gucht sometimes lacks.

The final song is “Waste”. Oh Wonder lyrically mention lonliness quite a bit and this is another track where they touch on the issue of being lonely and how life has got them to this point. It’s pretty standard fare and continues that minimlist trend.

 

The saccharine nature of Oh Wonder could easily put you off. This album isn’t going to be one where you will get a pop banger yet I feel about 2 or 3 of the songs with fuller production could have been turned into just that.

Everything is perhaps too nice on “Ultralife” and in a world full of hate it is refreshing to hear something a bit more stripped back and well, just plain nice.

As for the recording I must again point out that there is some terrible distortion on the vinyl and the recording released on spotify. I have listened with headphone, in the car and on my record player through some quite expensive speakers! This is really quite disappointing and makes the album difficult to enjoy.

 

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