Saturday, May 10, 2014

Ultra Vivid Scene - Mercy Seat and Special One EPs


More good stuff from that golden music era of the late '80s/early '90s . . . I used to catch the occasional Ultra Vivid Scene tune on one of the various alternative radio stations I listened to back in the day, and always enjoyed what this band had to offer.

Ultra Vivid Scene was essentially singer and guitarist Kurt Ralske, accompanied occasionally by a rotating host of musicians. Ralske was a gifted musician pretty much from the get-go; at sixteen, he had already gained entrance into Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music. But Ralske was always a free spirit and seeker of sorts on all levels, never settling on one particular thing, but absorbing what he thought was necessary before moving on to the next location and experience. He stayed at Berklee long enough to gain a thorough exposure to jazz music concepts, before moving on to college in New York City in the early 80s, and falling in with some of the major figures in that city's "No Wave" music scene (folks like James Chance and Thurston Moore). These New York sounds, which included not only the contemporary experimental scene but also the output of the Velvet Underground and hardcore punk, were a major influence in the music Ralske was attempting to piece together. He joined his first bands while in New York, serving as guitarist for Nothing But Happiness (who released a single ("Narcotics Day"/"Couldn't Make You Mine") in 1985 and an album
(Detour) in 1987), Dissipated Face (sort of a punkier version of The Contortions), King of Culture and Crash, fronted by singer-songwriter Mark Dumais. When Dumais decided to relocate Crash from NYC to London in 1987, Ralske went along.

During his time in England, Ralske was exposed to the experimental, abrasive, guitar-driven sounds of bands like The Jesus & Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. To quote an interview he conducted years later: " . . . the example of the Jesus & Mary Chain was very important for me. It pointed [toward] a way of doing things that were both simple and very complex at the same time. I was keen on this idea that things could have a simple form but actually be complex and subtle in their meaning."   It was the culmination of his extensive experience playing with his bands along with the profound influence The J & M Chain had on him that led him to form Ultra Vivid Scene in early 1988.

Ultra Vivid Scene (which, as stated above, was essentially Ralske) was quickly signed by 4AD later that year. His/the band's first recording, the four-song She Screamed EP, was released that August. Of all of the group's releases, it's the one that comes closest to emulating the Jesus & Mary Chain sound, albeit filtered through Ralske's extensive exposure to more mainstream rock (probably because it's the only release completely written, produced and performed by him). For example, here's the title cut:


UVS's first full album, a self-titled release, quickly followed in October 1988. The album is somewhat less abrasive and experimental than the preceding EP; the mixture of pop and noise here is definitely skewed toward the pop end of the spectrum. For me, in some cases (like the songs "Nausea" and "A Dream Of Love") this amalgamation is compelling; in others, it comes off as bland and whiny alt-rock. The best song on Ultra Vivid Scene in my opinion is "Mercy Seat", an almost perfect grind-pop meld of My Bloody Valentine and The Velvet Underground. [In my scrambled musical memories of years past, I had all but convinced myself that I had heard "Mercy Seat" in late 1987, more than a year before it was actually released. After a little reflection, I realized that I was confusing the song with the band Mercy Seat, former Violent Femmes vocalist Gordon Gano's gospel-punk side project, which released a self-titled album in the fall of 1987.]

The group and 4AD also realized what a winner they had in this song. In the spring of 1989, “Mercy Seat” was re-recorded and released on an EP, along with an excellent cover of Buffy St. Marie’s “Codine”, a new song called “H Like In Heaven”, and the original version of the lead track. The new version of “Mercy Seat” was augmented by a long, languid intro that almost doubles the track’s length but doesn't necessarily add anything new or compelling to it - in many ways, it weakens the power of the original album cut.

Here's one of the two videos made for "Mercy Seat" (the shorter version) - I included this one because near the end of the clip (at about the 3:25 mark), you can catch a glimpse of one of Ralske's erstwhile session band mates - none other than Moby himself - with hair no less!


Both the album and the Mercy Seat EP were fairly well received by critics. But Ultra Vivid Scene's main problem at the time was that they couldn't translate their music to audiences in a live setting. The band set out on their first American tour in 1989, but the shows were not well received. Ralske hired musicians rather than doing it all himself, so there may have been an issue with getting these hired hands fully conversant in his music. In addition Ralske (admittedly) paid little attention and less interest as to how to adequately capture his studio sound in concert. The result was a series of poor shows that killed much of their momentum in America; they were reportedly so bad that after a label representative saw them play in New York, he recommended that Ultra Vivid Scene become purely a studio concern, and no longer be allowed to play live.

Despite these setbacks, UVS soldiered on. Ralske reentered the studio in November 1989 to record the follow-up to Ultra Vivid Scene. This time out, he enlisted some help - namely, an established producer (Hugh Jones, who previously produced well-received indie/alternative releases, including That Petrol Emotion's Manic Pop Thrill and The Icicle Works' debut album) and a bevy of seasoned studio musicians. He also got some assistance from some of his friends in the industry, such as The Pixies' Kim Deal. The extra support freed Ralske from shouldering the entire burden of putting an album together, and led to the creation of probably Ultra Vivid Scene's finest record.

The new album, Joy 1967-1990, was released in May 1990. Overall, it's a lot peppier and somewhat bouncier than its predecessor (perhaps reflecting the lifting of pressures off of Ralske), and it was very well received in both the UK and US. The album reached the British Top 60, and three cuts off of it charted on the US Billboard Modern Rock Tracks. The highest charting single in the US was Ralske's sole collaboration with Deal, the excellent song "Special One" (which liberally steals much of its riff from Big Star's "September Gurls"). Here's video of the song:

[This is purportedly the "official video" - there's another one I used to see years ago, a black and white version with just Ralske and Deal sitting together and singing . . . I always hated that video, because Kim Deal (as much as I love her) acts like a complete bitch in it and all but hijacks the performance - smoking, mugging for the camera, pushing Ralske off his stool and and one point giving him a vicious face slap . . . not her finest moment.]
As with the previous album, 4AD recognized this as the strongest track off the new disc, and subsequently released "Special One" on its own EP later that fall, along with three non-album cuts.

Despite the negative reaction to their first tour, in the wake of the good press they were receiving with the new album, UVS went out on the road again in 1990, starting with a small concert series in England. Again, disaster ensued. Ralske commented years later about the shows:
" . . . with great fanfare, there were four nights of performances at a smallish club in the centre of London called the Borderline. In the audience were all the press and everybody important in the music industry. And basically we went out there and completely sucked: we had a very inadequate performance. I have spoken to other people who told me that, that was the point at which the fate of Ultra Vivid Scene was sealed. The performances were so bad that 4AD apparently begged people not to write about it. [laughs] Nobody wanted to think or talk about this group at all, ever again."
Ralske's take of the reaction to their performance was pretty spot-on. From that point onward, 4AD's support of UVS was sharply curtailed. Yet the relationship between the band and the label continued for a little while longer.

Prior to the sessions for Ultra Vivid Scene's third release, Ralske put together a real band to go into the studio with (consisting of himself on guitar and vocals, Julius Klepacz on drums and Jack Daley on bass), and this time the music was a true collaborative effort between the three of them. Rev, with a clear, polished
professional sound, was released in October 1992. Once again, despite label trepidations, Ultra Vivid Scene went out on the road to support it. But this time, the trio was in sync, and the result was some superb live performances.  But it was too little, too late for the group. The album failed to chart in either the US or England, and only one song, "Blood and Thunder" made the Modern Rock chart. Ralske and his band were released by 4AD in 1993.

For most of the rest of the 1990s, Ralske made his living engineering and producing records for the likes of Rasputina and Ivy, while working on his own experimental electronic music (he released four albums in the late 90s / early 2000s). Since then, he has moved into other artistic fields. He is now a well-respected and award-winning video and media artist, who holds professorships at two renowned East Coast art schools, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and the NYC School of Visual Arts. His works have been exhibited all over the world; have you ever been to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in downtown New York City, and noticed the video display right there in the lobby? That's his, and it's on permanent display there. His current curriculum vitae focuses mostly on his digital endeavors, barely mentioning his stint as a popular, groundbreaking alternative musician.

The online music magazine The Quietus featured an extensive interview with Ralske last October, the first he's given in many years. In it, he does much to all but dismiss his previous career in music. “I know there are some people that are still interested in those [Ultra Vivid Scene] records”, he stated, “but mostly I’m just focused on the present and the future. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them.”  That sort of precious, pretentious "I'm a real artist now" attitude irked me, more than a bit. Kurt, you once made challenging, compelling, popular music - a creation that tens of thousands of people enjoyed, loved and still remember. OWN it, and respect your fans, instead of being a big arty wuss about it.

Shortly after I read the Quietus article last year, I received a letter in the mail, telling me I had been selected for jury duty that November.  I spent most of the first week of November cooped up with several dozen other similarly unfortunate members of the public in a dank room in the basement of the Rhode Island Superior Court building on Benefit Street in downtown Providence, just a little ways from the RISD campus. They gave all of us who weren't assigned a case time off every afternoon to go out to lunch, and I invariably made the walk down North Main Street to eat at Fat Belly's Pub.

It was during one of my lunchtime strolls through RISD that week that I saw someone walking towards me who I swore was Kurt Ralske - the guy had the same thinning hair and glasses that were in his interview picture. His words in the article - and my reaction to it - were fresh in my mind, and I was just about to address the man headed in my direction to see if it was, in fact, him . . . but at the last second, I just kept my mouth closed and let the person walk on by. It might not have been him at all - who knows? And even if it was, what would/could I say? I'll let him be content with his current life and career; I'll be content with the music he left behind.

And here it is for you all to be content with as well - two Ultra Vivid Scene EPs:
  • The Mercy Seat EP, released in April 1989; and
  • The Special One EP, released on November 12th, 1990.
Both discs were put out by 4AD, and distributed in the US by Columbia Records.  Enjoy these tunes, and as always let me know your thoughts.  

Please use the email link below to contact me, and I will reply with the download link(s) ASAP:  

Mercy Seat EP: Send Email  

Special One EP: Send Email

7 comments:

  1. Great post on UVS. I bet that was Kurt that you saw!

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  2. Thanks again for the email regarding this post and the SGT. I'm enjoying your site and your commentary! Checking back again soon!

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  3. Thanks for the links, much appreciated!

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  4. Thanks for the links, a new band for me and excited to hear them!

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  5. Thanks for the in depth article, was really interesting. I was at the London show at the Borderline. I had it in my head as 1989 rather than 1990...but now I believe it must have been 1990. I do remember feeling a bit underwhelmed by the live sound - soft vocals neevr work that great with wall of sound guitars. Slowdive and Chapterhouse who were around at the time also really struggled live. But that said I think UVS recorded sm great music..most of which I still have on vinyl :)

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  6. Thanks much! Any chance you also have the "Candida" EP, with alternate versions of the title song, plus "She's A Diamond" and "This Is The Way (Part 2)"? That's the only thing left by them I can't find online.

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  7. Great to finally hear the Mercy Seat EP - many thanks for the link. Your post has also prompted me to dig up my CDs of the albums after all these years.

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