The duo of singer/musician Josephine Vander Gucht and producer/musician Anthony West formed in 2014 around a song-a-month songwriting-recording challenge with a one-year commitment. Calling themselves Oh Wonder and uploading their efforts to music-sharing site SoundCloud as they went, before their 12 months were up they'd gone viral with millions of streams, sold out shows in advance of touring, and signed a record deal with Republic Records. With a debut consisting mostly of those homemade keyboard/drum machine songs, their follow-up, Ultralife, is their first to be conceived as an album, or even as a legit group. Informed by the isolation of leaving family and ties in order to travel the world on tour for over a year, its themes include the need for both connection and time alone. As for its sound, most of the album was self-recorded in un-soundproofed residential spaces (hence the subtle album-opening traffic noise), and it was entirely produced and mixed by the duo. Notably, however, it does include guest performers and more diverse instrumentation: actual bass, drums, and strings, as well as analog synths and saxophone. While the songs from their debut locked into a distinctive, sensual blend of '80s sophisti-pop and contemporary, glitchy indie electronica, here they trade sophisti-pop for pop, and seductiveness for something bolder and more uplifting, at least on the majority of tracks. Their wistful demeanor is still present on sparer tracks, like "Solo" and "My Friends," a simple keyboard ballad that emphasizes often captivating unison vocals. Those tunes are outnumbered by brighter fare, like the buoyant title track's foot-stomping drums and lush, orchestral pop arrangements. Though much of the record lies in a blander space somewhere in between, intimacy definitely takes a hit with Ultralife's expanded production, while its more radiant, rousing demeanor is likely to play well to larger venues and those seeking sunnier, or at least partly cloudy atmosphere.
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AllMusic Review by Marcy Donelson