The Delgados

Universal Audio

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The Delgados refer to Universal Audio as their "long-awaited 'pop' album," and while the description is apt, it's their penchant for atmospheric, industrial town melancholia that ultimately wins out. In stark contrast to 2002's bombastic Dave Fridmann-produced Hate, Audio's sleek opener, "I Fought the Angels," begins with just a guitar and Emma Pollock's winsome vocals before launching into a tight Bossanova-era Pixies groove. Alun Woodward, always the reluctant optimist, follows with "Is That All I Came For?," a tale filled with doubt wrapped in a golden Beach Boys wonton -- a trick he honed to perfection on Hate's sunny and sarcastic title track -- but it's Pollock's instantly catchy and retro (as in 1992) "Everybody Come Down" that embodies the group's metamorphosis from brooding orchestral pop experimentalists into hook-driven purveyors of sunny road-trip modern rock. What's interesting about that single, as well as the bulk of Universal Audio, is that it's the simple omission of the excessive reverb that defined their two previous records that gives these new tracks their pop sheen. Cuts like "Bits of Bone" and "Girls of Valour" are harmony-laden confections of melodic complexity, and while they manage to fuse the angular melodicism of pre-Skylarking XTC with the pastoral city-kitsch of a band like Saint Etienne, there's still an undercurrent of wistful discontent that's distinctly Delgados. That air of predawn loneliness is best conveyed on Pollock's gorgeous ode to the love/hate relationship between artists and their hometown on "The City Consumes Us," a beautiful ballad that features one of Pollock's most devastating and affective vocal takes. Universal Audio is not a success upon first listen. Like all Delgados records, it takes repeated drives along the city outskirts to sink in, but when it does there's no going back, and the listener is rewarded once again with something rich, happily overcast, and strangely intangible.

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