The Universal Thump
The Universal Thump


Though I'm perfectly aware that it's something quite difficult to believe, it appears that lately - having noticed, perhaps, my growing disenchantment when it comes to a large part of the music released nowadays - Chance is doing its best to make some wonderful music appear, as if by magic, in my mailbox.

First album by musicians with a long and varied background, The Universal Thump is the perfect specimen of the above-mentioned category: fine compositions, stimulating lyrics, very good (both vocal and instrumental) performances, great variety when it comes to arrangements, crystal-clear recorded sound... I'll add that the musical content can be filed under "surprisingly accessible", and that the album was funded through a Kickstarter Campaign... What more could one ask for?

Quite easy to "get", the music is not so easy to describe. I thought about the tag "Orchestral Pop", but since it was my intention to avoid any misunderstanding, I had a look on the Web, and I found (it's on the Web, so it must be true) the "Orchestral Pop" label to be closely related to a specific "indie genre" featuring groups such as The Polyphonic Spree, and Sufjan Stevens's arrangements. Well, I don't know about that. And the "soft vocals and layered instrumental side" reads a bit too generic to me.

So, I hear you say, what does it sound like? Well, in the course of my listening sessions sometimes I was - superficially - reminded of David Garland; and at least one Sixties-flavoured episode - Honey Beat, with vocal traces of The Beach Boys - reminded me of Brian Woodbury And His Variety Orchestra, though here the track appears to lack the bittersweet irony that's so typical of Woodbury. Another track reminded me of Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin in their golden days. While those martial snare drums and massed choirs in another song appeared to share some "Oriental" traits of pieces by Haco or Yuka Honda. Just to add to the confusion, I'll say that the first track sounds like a soprano fronting The Penguin Café Orchestra!

It goes without saying that those are just names I was reminded of while listening to the album. I don't really believe, of course, that those were real influences on the album!

It's now time to get to the specifics.

A long time in the making, The Universal Thump's main characters are two musicians (both in their late-thirties, I suppose) with a large background: Greta Gertler and Adam D Gold. Here Greta Gertler writes the majority of the music (and all the lyrics); she's also the featured vocalist, and she plays (mostly, but not exclusively) the piano; she's also a solo artist with three albums under her name, and she's also a successful music writer. I know less about Gold. Here he plays the drums (quite functional drums, I'd say by design), but he also sings, arranges, plays acoustic and electric guitars, synth, and percussion. Both Gertler and Gold co-produced the album, Gold also being actively busy at the recording stage.

Here I have to say that - though the whole sounds surprisingly coherent, and all "of a piece" - the album is really "overdub city", with instruments such as a beautiful-sounding Steinway piano, tuba, a string quartet, organ, celeste, and so on, having been recorded here and there. So I really have to mention the mixing engineers - Noah Simon and Bryce Goggin, both quite well-known - and the mastering engineer, Paul Gold: Great work, guys!

I listened to the album in the form of a double CD, and I'm sure that somewhere out there it also exists as a "digital download", while I suppose the double vinyl option also exists. I'd say that when it comes to this album the vinyl appears to be the most "user-friendly" format: in fact, the album is split into four "Chapters" of almost equal length. But it's the "progression" of the material that to me appears to best accommodate an attentive, but "episodic", listening attitude, as it's typical of the LP Side. Eighteen tracks appear: fourteen vocal numbers, with four short instrumentals adding variety.

Sounding very fresh and delicate when it comes to melodies, the album's orchestration side is really something else, the instrumental "weights" so skillfully deployed. Only one caveat: Gertler's vocals, and her compositional approach when it comes to composing lead vocal lines, appear to deal with a (relatively speaking!) limited part of the available palette, and maybe some listeners (but definitely not this writer!) could derive an impression of too much uniformity being at work. But I believe that the orchestral timbral palette amply compensates for this.

About sixty musicians appear. Those I know: Roy Nathanson, on alto sax; Noe Venable, Courtney Kaiser-Sandler, and Tanya Donelly, on vocals; Tony Sherr, on guitar. Among those I don't know (but who I suppose are quite well-known) I'll mention: Byron Isaacs on double bass; Jon Dryden on various keyboards and arrangements; Sean Sonderegger on clarinet, bass clarinet, and tenor sax; J. Walter Hawkes on trombone; Alden Banta on bassoon; Jonathan Maron on electric bass; Rachelle Garniez on accordion; Pete Galub on guitars; John Ellis on clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor sax, and flute; Matt Stauffer on tuba; Michael Hearst on theremin. There's also a string quartet, featuring Yuki Numata, Marisa Kuney, Beth Meyers, and Maria Jeffers.

The album's first track is called Swimming. A piano arpeggio, then strings appear, then a lady soprano, backed by... The Penguin Café Orchestra: string quartet, agile bassoon, clarinet; sporting a captivating chorus, the piece is light and airy. There's a long interlude, with pizzicati, bass played arco, the piano's lower notes, a children choir. Then it's back to the start, the chorus again, fine trombone and bass clarinet.

Grasshoppers is a sad-sounding piece in ¾, with the string quartet to the fore, multiple vocals, accordion, fine chorus. Nice backing by the electric bass, coda with organ.

Grasshopper's Gold appears like an extrapolation from the melodic line of the previous piece; icy, for strings, it's penned by Adam D Gold.

Honey Beat sports a Very 60s mood, with Beach Boys vocals, acoustic guitar, strings, and a fine electric guitar solo. A perfect close for Side One.

To The Border (Wild Raspberries) reminded me of Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin. Opening for string quartet, then Rhodes, vocals, electric bass, clarinets alternating with an ethereal-sounding vocal melody. Then it's tenor sax and the electric bass that come to the fore.

Opening Night is a fast Sixties-track à la Slapp Happy (yep, it's quite an obscure reference), sporting organ; multiple, layered vocals, playing roles; with a fine chorus. Double bass, tuba, strings, accordion, and theremin all enrich the whole - and there's also a baritone guitar solo. Fine coda for strings, accordion, and theremin.

Linear Messages features the piano, drums with brushes, double bass. Also strings, accordion, then flute and clarinet. There's a very fine interlude - a Tango! - for accordion, little bird, and piano. The bass clarinet goes under the vocals, then the flute.

Conversation, Not Far From The Gowanus Canal is a fine episode for bass clarinet.

The Last Time has piano and bass to the fore, in a way it's a blues with organ - echoes of Carla Bley? - with fine cymbals, and a brief, but quite intense, tenor sax solo with a "sforzando" à la Gary Windo. The closing is quite majestic, with choir.

The third chapter starts with Angular Banjoes: multiple tubas, plus sounds of Nature.

Darkened Sky starts with a "minimal-sounding" piano arpeggio, melancholy vocals, cymbals. There's a very beautiful vocal melody, with a skillful contrast between vocals and bass notes - from double bass, synth, and electric bass; a light guitar also appears. There's a fine coda with guitar, and "fat-sounding" percussion - here, in opposition to the start of the piece, the coda "envelopes" the vocals.

Ban Melisma starts with a drum machine, a simple guitar, and synth - it's a light melody. Then it's drums played brushes, guitar, electric bass, and a "space-sounding" guitar solo. Fine vocals.

Dwell is a hit song penned by Gertler, and recorded by a group whose name escapes me. This is a different version, with string quartet, double bass, and a "winning" chorus; a waltz, that's a perfect close to Chapter Three.

Teacher is a piano ballad (with echoes of Procol Harum!) with fine vocals and interesting modulations, which turns into a Gospel (!); it has a coda with "slide" guitars.

Flora is a semi-glad ballad, con brio, the glockenspiel adding a light touch, synth, electric guitar, snare drum. This light atmosphere reminded me a bit of Laura Nyro's most serene moments - but this time with a trombone solo!

Beitass is a brief percussive interlude, quite varied, a perfect change of pace.

Snowbird is the album's peak. There's a limpid vocal melody, a fluid electric bass solo, then a martial snare drums introduces a long, majestic section with giant, massed choirs. Theremin, tuba, winds, saxophone, cymbals.

Only An Ocean is the brief, and light, close: a fine ¾ with snare drum, accordion, tuba, violin, and male choir, plus "mermaids" (of course, since there's... "only an ocean to cross"!).

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2013 | Mar. 5, 2013