Ultraísta is spearheaded by producer Nigel Godrich, and the building blocks of the project’s self-titled debut are what we’ve come to expect from Radiohead’s unofficial sixth member. Alongside vocalist Laura Bettinson (FEMME/Dimbleby & Capper) and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Joey Waronker (Beck, Atoms for Peace, Smashing Pumpkins), Godrich whips synths, jittery tribal percussion, and Bettinson’s Stereolab-lite voice into a Thom Yorke-worthy cloud art-rock abstraction.
Named for a 20th-century Spanish literary movement that declared surreal variations on minimalism are superior to more ornate styles, Ultraísta hews close to these ideals – using sonically commanding elements in sparse arrangements. As a result, their 10 dark, twisted pop compositions are given room to slowly unfold. The Spartan “Party Line” ebbs and flows around a jazzy, late night emotional current, not unlike Yo La Tengo’s “Autumn Sweater.” Meanwhile, “Wash it Over” induces alpha waves though the use of electronic drones and Bettinson’s hypnotically chanted invitation, “Come on and wash it over me.”
But the most startling (and ultimately satisfying) tracks all stem from moments when the band sets aside their self-enforced guidelines. “Static Light” starts out with a single percussion line, Bettinson’s voice carrying the melody until the song’s midway point, when keys and a ghostly backing join in, creating the backdrop to an oppressive dance floor anthem. Bettinson also takes center stage on album highlight “Small Talk,” shuffling between vocal lines and a percussion series of “ohs” and “hums.” Her efforts are looped and multiplied into an unsettling choir that – like so much of the album – isn’t merely dynamic, but downright explosive.