Ultra Vivid Scene

  • Ultra Vivid Scene
  • She Screamed EP (UK 4AD) 1988 
  • Ultra Vivid Scene (4AD/Rough Trade) 1988 
  • Mercy Seat EP (UK 4AD) 1989 
  • Joy 1967 – 1990 (4AD/Columbia) 1990 
  • Special One EP (4AD/Columbia) 1990 
  • Staring at the Sun EP (4AD/Columbia) 1990 

Listen past the pretty facade of Ultra Vivid Scene to the barely suppressed screams within, and you’ll find an admirably subversive mind at work. Whether performing techno-pop, ambient soundscapes or Patsy Cline covers, UVS wields the same breathless, desperate menace.

For all its attempts to be perceived as a band, UVS is still essentially Kurt Ralske, a musical prodigy of sorts from Long Island who grew up on jazz and classical music. After quitting the Berklee School of Music at 17, he bought a guitar and began playing in rock, hardcore and jazz bands, moving to London with a group called Crash (which soon did). He then formed the first incarnation of UVS and hung out with members of the Jesus & Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and Loop before returning to New York and signing with 4AD.

Ralske created the elaborate Ultra Vivid Scene entirely by himself, offering a disturbingly intimate glimpse into his evidently tortured soul as well as his considerable musical talents. The bittersweet juxtapositions — a beautiful melody with S&M lyrics, a bouncy pop song driven by hyper-distorted guitar — create a tension that jangles even the album’s most sedate songs. Anguished yet never overbearing, soothing without turning complacent, it’s one of 1988’s best.

She Screamed joins the album cut with a lazy cover of Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” and two brooding originals, while a new version of “Mercy Seat” transforms that song into a towering, majestic tour de force; combined with the LP version, the stalking “H Like in Heaven” and a cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Codine,” it makes for a devastating EP.

Joy 1967 — 1990 hones Ralske’s pop sensibility to a surgically precise point, Hugh Jones’ radio-oriented production reducing his quiet Bolanesque lisp to a whisper. It’s a far more straightforward pop album than the debut (and much less disturbing), although “Praise the Low” breaks formation with a beautifully ambient neo-Celtic arrangement. The Staring at the Sun EP previewed two album tracks with a new version of “Crash” and a lilting cover of Goffin/Mann’s “Something Better,” both of which rival anything on Joy.

Those who feared that Ralske had replaced angst with joy were relieved by the B-sides on Special One (the album’s “hit single,” which shamelessly lifts the melody from Alex Chilton’s “September Gurls”), revealing exactly the progress the album lacked. Sampling two of rap’s most commonly employed drum beats (“Funky Drummer” and “When the Levee Breaks”) on “Kind of a Drag” and a radically different version of Joy‘s “Lightning,” Ralske integrates songs so atypical to the genre that the genericized beats work brilliantly to his advantage.

[Jem Aswad]