A Eulogy for Ultimate Painting, One of Indie Rock’s Most Underappreciated Talents

The London duo should’ve become an institution. But with their final album supposedly scrapped, they’re at risk of becoming a footnote.

For the entirety of Ultimate Painting’s now tragically short run, the duo of James Hoare and Jack Cooper were routinely described within the context of their previous bands. Even in posts announcing their abrupt breakup this week, it was still “James Hoare of Veronica Falls” and “Jack Cooper of Mazes”—as if this were the side project, instead of the other way around. As if this was the band that wasn’t meant to be taken as seriously.

Fact is, the complete Ultimate Painting discography—2014’s Ultimate Painting, 2015’s Green Lanes, 2016’s Dusk, and this year’s suddenly doomed Up!—represents one of the strongest four-album outputs of a rock group this side of The Velvet Underground. There isn’t a bad track in the bunch, and many of them, unassuming and glacial, are patently stunning. For my money, anyway, “Monday Morning, Somewhere Central” is a top ten song of the decade.  

So what happened to make it all crumble so quickly? The new album was in the can, a UK tour was booked, a bio was written, advance promos were sent out. And then just like that, it was scrapped. Due to an “irreconcilable breakdown,” not only has the band broken up, but Up!’s release has been completely cancelled as well. (Bella Union, the label set to release it, has confirmed to SPIN that the presses have indeed been stopped.) Unfortunately, this doesn’t feel like one of those LCD Soundsystem “let’s make sure we go out with a bang lol jk” breakups. It feels more like one of those “fuck off and die” Lennon/McCartney breakups. (I would love it if I was wrong, anyway.)

Maybe there’s more to the story—please don’t have anything to do with sexual assault, please don’t have anything to do with sexual assault—but for now all we can do is take them at their word that it’s over simply because they can’t work together anymore. (It’s hard to imagine that the financial impossibility of trying to make it as a fringe indie band in 2018 didn’t also play a role.) Either way, though, this leaves us as listeners in the precarious spot of having to carry on their legacy retroactively—but that really shouldn’t be a problem, given what’s being left behind.

Looking at it as a whole, Ultimate Painting’s music has that rare quality of being universally appropriate—it could set a party or a coffee shop, a summer drive or a winter flu. Pick a song completely at random and it’ll serve as a perfect start to a mixtape for someone you’re trying to win over. Add it to a Folgers commercial and it’ll seem like an A24 production.

Guitar lines and vocal parts intermix freely throughout, and part of the charm comes from listening to the unified sound of a true duo; on any given track, it’s truly hard to tell which member is playing/singing what—and despite this, it’s all definitively UP. Both members put out albums separately from each other in the past year—Hoare with The Proper Ornaments and Cooper with a solo album—and while the projects were both inspired, they felt like they were missing something. It might have been each other.

But in the interest of the band not being forgotten, it’s all but criminal to withhold the release of Up! altogether, whether digitally, physically, or both. Please forgive the egregious humblebrag here, but I was one of the lucky ones to receive a copy of the aborted LP, and having listened to it for the past month or so, I can say that it’s quite possibly the group’s best. (You’ll have to take it on good faith that I’m not just saying that given this week’s news.) To prevent it from release is frankly bizarre, as well as a tremendous disservice to those who would enjoy it. I can only hope that someone at Bella Union is looking for the fine print in the band’s contract that allows the label to press the record regardless.

Going back to the beginning, much of Ultimate Painting’s music starts abruptly. No count-in, no riff—just straight into the vocals of the verse. It’s a tough trick to pull off, but for songwriters with a gentle touch—like Elliott Smith or Cat Stevens, say—it’s a wonderful tool to make an otherwise quiet song feel loud and direct. It also makes the song feel like it’s perpetually being performed in the present tense. That’s going to be a big asset going forward now that this catalog has to fight for itself, without press cycles, without touring, without members that even seem to believe in it themselves. Ultimate Painting went out with an exclamation mark. Now they’re trying to erase it—but they wrote it in pen. FL

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