Friday, August 05, 2022

Acoustic Trip Hop: Ui, "Lifelike"

Ui, Lifelike (Southern, 1998)

Among the other post-rock bands that hit my radar and tickled my fancy in the mid-1990s, I didn’t listen to Ui as much as I did Tortoise and Trans Am, and perhaps even less than Gastr del Sol, Isotope 217 and the adjacent Chicago Underground Orchestra (or duo or trio or quartet, depending). Hailing from the Midwest, much of my attention was Chicago-centric, so it surprised me to learn that Ui was based in New York City—even if they signed to the Chicago-based label Southern after a show at the Lounge Ax. You can’t get much more Chicago than that! (Trans Am was based in Maryland, so Chicago—even though it was a center for post-rock—did not hold sole claim to the sound.)

In some ways, Ui’s music falls squarely near the center of post-rock, in that it’s instrumental music and utilized traditional rock instrumentation with electronics while eschewing rock song structures or elements. Ui expands on that a little bit with its focus on the bass rather than the guitar (occasionally reminding me of Morphine)—the band features two bassists—and the use of other instruments, including keyboards and horns.

In fact, with only three members—Wilbo Wright on basses, keyboards, and cello; Clem Waldmann on drums and percussion; and Sasha Frere-Jones on basses, guitar, keyboards, auxiliary percussion, sampling, and sequencing—Ui obtains a relatively full sound on Lifelike, its second and penultimate album. (Its final album would come but four years later.) The pieces incorporating horns—with eight United Kingdom- and United States-based players credited in the liner notes—sound even more full, incorporating jazz and subtle classical sensibilities.

The resulting sound skews closer to electronica and dub than other post-rock acts, as represented by the penultimate track on the compact disc, “Acer Rubrum.” It’s as though Medeski Martin & Wood studied with Kenneth Gaburo or Eugene Chadbourne led the Beastie Boys for The In Sound from Way Out! Call it acoustic trip hop even though it's not acoustic. Subtly funky and groove-oriented, the band stops shy of jamming, with pieces on the CD ranging between two and five minutes in length. Part of me, however, would like some of the songs to last longer, as though Stereolab were part of the Washington, D.C., go-go scene. Perhaps, even, forever.

Highlights of the record include the cascading guitar lines in “Blood in the Air,” the trumpet entrance several minutes into “Undersided,” the multi-layered groove and steady decay and degradation of “Digame” (the piece just falls apart at the end), “Green of the Melon” in its entirety, and “The Fortunate One Knows No Anxiety”’s loosely tuned persistent progress.

Even though I bought this CD upon its release, I didn’t make the connection between the Sasha Frere-Jones of the band Ui and the Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker and other writing until this week. Previously contributing to such diverse periodicals as Ego Trip, Jessica Hopper’s Hit It or Quit It, and The Wire, Frere-Jones joined the staff of The New Yorker in 2004—following the release of Ui’s final album, Answers, in 2003. He continued working for the magazine until 2015.

These days, you can still find Frere-Jones’s writing in The New Yorker sometimes, as well as in 4Columns, Artforum, Observer, and other outlets. Ui might no longer be performing, but his writing remains relevant and thought provoking. Meanwhile, Wright continues to perform; sells, transports, and plants trees; teaches music lessons; and hosts a radio show on Princeton’s radio station, WPRB-FM, every Tuesday from 12-3 p.m. ET. (WNUR-FM alumnus Jon Solomon also hosts a show there.) Waldmann, also a member of the Loser’s Lounge, went on to record and perform with the Blue Man Group, and more recently recorded with George Faulkner of the Rabies. (Incidentally, in the early days of the Blue Man Group’s Boston outpost, I ushered for a performance so I could see them for free; it was awesome then—I can only imagine what it’s like now that they’re owned by Cirque du Soleil.)

This album was kind of a sleeper when it first came out. Even slumbering for almost 25 years, Lifelike remains worth listening to—and pleasantly surprising throughout. I should’ve paid more attention to Ui when they were still around. Because then I might have listened to this record more over the intervening years.

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