Track Reviews: Universal Thee- Speaker / Hounds



Universal Thee



Speaker / Hounds


9.5/10 and 9.4/10



Speaker is available at:

Hounds is available at:

SPEAKER RELEASED: 18th January, 2016


December, 2015

GENRES: Rock; Alternative; Indie


Edinburgh, U.K.


BY returning to Scottish Rock/Indie band Universal Thee…

I get to see a wonderful blend of Alternative sounds; some perfect kinetics.  Before expanding more on the Edinburgh-based band, I have the chance to look at consistency and development in bands; the boy-girl dynamics- finishing off with the great bands emerging from Scotland.  Being a busy week of reviewing- across multiple genres and acts- I will get a chance to witness a variety of artists.  Some are just starting out whilst others are making their next (impressive) steps.  I have mentioned this in past reviews- when it comes to consistency and development among musicians- but there are still a lot of fly-by-night artists coming out.   It seems that so many ‘heralded’ artists- those held in high esteem by music publications and radio stations- impress you at first: As time elapses, their (once magic) qualities seem more explicable and unspectacular.  I think music consumers- and the press for that matter- become seduced too quickly: If an artist sounds a bit different or special; we are so keen to put musicians on a pedestal and create standards they cannot live up to.  This seems to be a big issue with bands: So many get huge plaudits and are compared to the next so-and-such: Invariably that act fails to meet the expectations that have been set.  I love discovering musicians that overcome the hurdles and keep on playing.  Music is a capricious and unsympathetic industry at times- where the best and brightest can find it impossibly challenging- so any musician that endures should be applauded.  Once bands (and other musicians) get past that debut-album/E.P. stage of their careers; from there they have the opportunity to develop/change their sound- having won the approval of fans and the press.  If you have a truly unique and wonderful sound straight away- few artists manage to achieve this- then changing things slightly can lead to renewed passion and inspiration.  Before I continue on this point- and mention one or two others- let me introduce my featured act:

James Russell (guitar & vocals)

Lisa Russell (vocals)

Robin Spivey (guitar)

Andrew Perrie (bass)

Matt Grieve (drums)

 “Universal Thee formed in 2010 as a trio with a faulty Macbook for a drummer. This remained the case for over two years. Only in March 2012 did they perform their first ever gig with a drummer. At least 8 people were in attendance. Things change however and by the end of March 2014 they had recorded and released their critically acclaimed slacker rock album “Back to Earth”.  With a range of songs and styles, the five-piece, led by husband and wife, James and Lisa Russell, provide a Pixies-esque loud-quiet-loud dynamic, mixing slacker rock, grunge and indie pop. It is James talent for writing catchy melodies delivered by beautiful male/female harmonies, matched with Robin’s ability to create diverse and powerful lead guitar hooks, that ensures listeners will be singing their songs for days. Although their music gives a nod to their many interesting and diverse influences such as Ash, Pixies, Weezer and Queens of the Stone Age (amongst others), fans and bloggers agree that they genuinely have their own new, distinct and exciting sound. The blog site musicmusingsandsuch sought to describe their sound, stating: “as well as melody, there is a great deal of exciting noise; this combination, combined with male and female (lead) vocals, elicits an almost-Grunge/Punk splendour, rarely attempted in the 21st century”.  February 2016 will see the release of their sophmore album “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace” sees the band make a natural progression in their sound, with a more focused, more intense record evolving throughout the recording process as Universal Thee embrace the nuances of a bigger polished production as well as an increased level of complexity to their songwriting.  The result is a record that captures all of their most positive skills as a band, constructing songs with an immediacy which is difficult to achieve, as contagious harmonies are married with memorable melodies and wonderfully crafted musicianship. Album opener ‘Why’ leads from the front, setting the tone for an album that contains ten tracks of glowing, uplifting alt-pop. Harnessing the influences of bands such as Teenage Fanclub, Pixies and current favourites Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, ‘Why’ features the band’s compelling guitar licks, boy/girl harmonies and ear-worm like choruses. ‘Xang’ and ‘Sail Away’ exhibit a grittier side to their songwriting, while forthcoming single Speaker has the potential to capture the imagination of a much wider audience.  Having all studied at Dundee University, James Russell (guitar & vocals), Lisa Russell (vocals), Robin Spivey(guitar) Andrew Perrie (bass) formed the band in Edinburgh, with Matt Grieve (drums) a recent addition. Universal Thee have been building their name north of the border playing a number of shows supporting the likes of Ded Rabbit as well as an appearance on the pyramid stage at the Kelburn Garden Party Festival. With more tours planned over the coming months, a debut London show in the works and the forthcoming release of their brand new album, 2016 is looking like a year where Universal Thee will spread their wings even further afield.  All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace by Universal Thee is out 19th February 2016 via Eventual Heirs Records

Having spoken to the husband-and-wife team of James and Lisa Russell- the voices behind Universal Thee- I know the band has undergone changes recently.  Currently welcoming  a new member- there has been a change in the ranks- the Scottish band are readying to present their latest album to the masses.  Having been a huge fan of Back to Earth; the intriguingly-titled All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace will be unleashed on February 19th.  I know how much Back to Earth meant to the guys: It was their debut album and a fully-fledged chance to present their music to the fans.  Having spent a lot of time, money and sweat making that record: It gained the plaudits (after some hard graft) it deserved and saw them capture the ears of some very important media outlets.  When it came to their sophomore album the guys have brought in new influences- bands such as Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin (one of the all-time best band names) and embraced old favourites (the likes of Pixies and Teenage Fanclub).  The confidence across the new album shows the five-piece have grown and developed their music: They were fantastic to start but have brought in new lyrical themes and added new dimensions.  Whilst not a total sonic about-face; All Watched Over’ is an album that will draw in new fans and sees new sides to Universal Thee.  Aside from the gorgeous guitar licks and stunning band interplay- one of the most harmonious and tight-knit group out there- you have that indelible bond of Lisa and James.  Being a husband-and-wife attack you would expect there to be a natural connection and understanding: They are one of the most exciting vocal duos I have heard in a long time.  Their tones seem perfect to the subject matter and whilst Lisa provides that mix of sweet-and-strong; James’ unique tones give passion and danger to the songs.  Being inspired by the likes of Pixies there are shades of Kim Deal (the band’s former bass player) and Black Francis (the band’s leader) in the sounds of Universal Thee.  Whilst perhaps not as psychotic and demented as Pixies; you have a band that perfectly blends U.S. Grunge/Alternative of the ‘80s and marries that to a blend of U.K. and American influences.  Few bands have a girl-boy duo up-front- few bands actually have one girl surrounding by boys- so it is refreshing to witness a band like Universal Thee.  Aside from bands I have reviewed- like False Advertising and Shaydes- it is rare to see female tones lead a male-heavy group.  I think music needs to take inspiration from the likes of Universal Thee.  A truly special and original act emerging: Make sure you follow Edinburgh’s finest Alternative act and where they are headed.  With the new album forthcoming- a couple of its songs available to the public- we have a tantilising glimpse into a wonderful creation.  Those changes- in personnel and sound- have not deterred or hurt the band in any way.  Universal Thee sound more inspired and urgent than at any other time: I predict they will be growing stronger and more nuanced with every subsequent release.  Around Scotland, there are some terrific bands playing.  I recently reviewed The Fables: A tremendous band that has the Punk spirit of Sex Pistols and The Clash.  Elsewhere, the likes of Ded Rabbit (who Universal Thee plays alongside frequently) are showing what the country is capable of.  With eyes locked to England for new music (of the U.K.), more people need to crane their necks to this nation’s most promising arena.  Scotland has always flown under-the-radar in a sense: Critics and music magazines tend to be too obsessed with other parts of the U.K.  If the likes of Universal Thee have proven anything it's how wrong they were: Let’s hope 2016 will see a more all-inclusive and unifying patronage.



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Many have noted- that have heard the new material- how evolving Universal Thee are.  The band has not lost their original sound and core: Adding new elements and emotions to the blend; we have a more rounded and nuanced sound across their latest album.  The five-piece are inspired by the following:

Pixies, Metric, Ash, The Cribs, Deus, Dinosaur Jr; Weezer, Cable, Stapleton, Neutral Milk Hotel; Of Montreal, Pavement; Frightened Rabbit, QOTSA and Grandaddy

If you are inclined towards any of these bands then you will find much to love in Universal Thee.  What is the biggest change- from their debut to sophomore album- is the new influences and sounds they bring in.  Whilst Back to Earth had a lot of Pixies elements to it- especially the twin vocals- now the band has expanded and broadened the vocals and sound more original.  The compositions bring in ‘90s elements and the grittiness of Alternative.  Not dropping their sunniness and uplifting moments; the band’s latest songs are even more memorable and sing-along than their debut days.  Whether it was the result of a band huddle- wondering what they next steps should be- but the songwriting is incredibly varied, emotive and impressive.  On their debut they were hugely impressive and confident: What we have this year is a band that is at the top of their game.  This all bodes well for the future of the Edinburgh band.

Speaker is the band’s latest single and sees one of their most memorable and vivid music videos- I believe it was an immense amount of fun to make!  Make sure you check the video out as it is a hugely memorable and captivating one.  The track itself begins with an orgasmic explosion of guitars, bass and percussion.  The band get out of the traps like a greyhound on fire: There is huge weight, speed and catchiness in the initial notes that showcase the new production values.  Both polished and raw; you have an introduction that sounds like nothing they have produced.  An ombudsman between their old and new sounds: Speaker is a vibrant and snaking beast right from the first seconds.  Ensuring the listener is allowed to imagine and speculate as to what is coming next.  Such an explosion and riot of sound; few will be able to ignore the hypnotic and swaggering sound of a band full of intention and direction.  It is said (by the hero and heroine) that they’re in love with a speaker- showing the charming and unique side of their lyrics- which makes you daydream and picture the words as they unfold.  Both Lisa and James join vocals immediately to give a unified charge that sees them at their most together and compelling.  It is said “You know it might just blow your mind” which gets me wondering about the origins of the song.  Whether the ‘speaker’ of the song represents the band’s song- and that tune will blow your mind- I am not sure.  It is fascinating to investigate words that have some obliqueness to them.  Caught gormless by the wonderful video- its speaker-headed lead is on a date that does not go well- I got recollections of Coffee + TV (some of the elements from that video are here) and that creativity and originality translate into the song.  Whereas previous numbers have perhaps started with some nerves or slow-build; that is not the case here: From the introduction to the first verse, the band does not miss a beat or lose momentum.  With the band whipping a wonderful composition- blending melodic Alternative shades with something snarling and attacking- you have a parabond of U.S. and U.K. elements early on.  It is the dynamics and blends of compositional elements that push the vocals and give the song such an addictive and fresh sound.  Little touches of Weezer’s debut album come out- that intelligent songwriting and insatiable sound- that will please fanboys of the ‘90s- whilst recruiting new listeners and younger audiences.   Throughout Speaker the five-piece repeat words- being in love with a speaker for one- that makes it a catchy and impossible-to-ignore song.  Not cynically designed for chanting and easy sing-along; instead, you have a song that recognises and highlights its strengths.

When the band sing “There is more to life than I can see”- among the rapture of notes and that wonderful chorus- it brings in new perspective and meanings.  Being a band that mixes direct with byzantine- making their songs immediate and open-for-interpretation- listeners will have their own perspectives of Speaker.  In the first case, I got impressions of music love and the passion musicians have: How music obsesses the mind and is the most important thing.  When new lines and directions are brought in, my mind starts to broaden.  Words of emergency and late-night rabble blend into a song that is huge on hooks and uplift.  Whilst the song’s nature might look at some seedier and emotive areas; you cannot deny how head-infusing and unforgettable the song is.  That chorus is just the start of things: The wonderfully vibrant and passionate vocals sit with a tight and punchy composition.  This is the kind of song that is likely to be a live favourite.  You can see crowds united in song as the song pummels out of the speakers.  That said, there's universality and melody that means it is going to be in-demand across radio stations around the U.K.  I hope the band ensure they push the song further than local radio- London’s biggest boys will want to hear it- as they have crafted one of their most memorable and stunning tracks ever.  Bringing in elements of early-days Pixies- candid and vivid stories that melt the strange and everyday together- with something uniquely their own.  Here is a band that sounds more in love with music than ever before.  As the final notes play you still wonder what the true meaning of the song is- something I will have to press the band about.  The accompanying music video sees the speaker-headed hero make his way to a nightclub: Promptly vomiting (rather artlessly) into a toilet, it brings all the chaos, drunkenness and love-gone-wrong regret the song suggests.  The video’s creativity and budget show how much faith the band has in the song.  Throwing down a gauntlet- and suggesting how great their latest album will be- it is perhaps the band’s most accomplished and ‘together’ song.  The composition mixes lovely drum fills/runs with some catchy riffs and assured bass work- keeping the song together and driving those vocals.  Up top, you have our leads that sound like they are completely in love with the song: Such refreshing and smiling vocals give the song the authority and performance it richly deserves.

Whereas Speaker is the band’s latest single; Hounds is a song that is available as a download.  Showing an instant diversion from Speaker; Hounds is a song that is equally impressive.  Beginning with a sharp and buzzing guitar riff- one that gets to the point and marks its intentions- the song wastes no time getting people involved.  Words that see our leads feeling paralyzed and helpless again get the mind wondering and guessing.  Perhaps some of the production mix the vocal too low- some of the words are a little hard to capture- but the abiding impression is ensuring that composition and vocal firepower reigns hard and makes its mark.  What I get from Hounds is how confident Universal Thee sound.  Paranoid and cashed-in lies come into a song that deals with tough emotions and something quite personal to the band.  Whether a reference to events in their lives- or something less direct- you have a performance that explodes with giddiness and directness.  Lisa Russell’s yelped punctuation is one of the most addictive and memorable elements of the song- that malleable and distinct voice add loads of nuance, heart and wonder to every line.  When Lisa and James combine you get a confident and scintillating performance from a band that is at their very peak.  Special commendation must be given to the composition that is given a lot of attention and detail.  The guitars employ lots of shades and ideas that give the sound such variety and potential.  Too many bands get hooked on easy riffs and to-the-gut punch.  Universal Thee are among the most intelligent and considerate bands around.  Their music has so many touches and ideas that will leave the listener hitting the ‘play’ button again.  One of Universal Thee’s greatest tricks is repeating lines and vocals to enforce the song’s meanings and catchiness.  Never compromising quality for simple sing-along; once more the band presents a song that has enormous repeatability and radio play potential.  Hounds will appeal to the more credible and cutting-edge stations.  Certain mantras and motifs- the line “Do you what you want to do”- mix inside a song that intrigues and allows every listener to arrive at their own conclusion and extrapolate their own meanings.  Bringing new influences and ideas into their songwriting: Universal Thee are more alive, diverse and meaningful than ever before.  Hounds is a perfect example of what All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace will possess.

Uniting the melodic uplift of Back to Earth with a renewed intensity and purpose: I am bowled over by how together and nuanced the band is.  When their album is released next month it will give fans a chance to see how Universal Thee have developed and progressed.  Their polished and terrific production sound allows the wonderful vocal and band interplay to really shine and capture the imagination.  The songwriting is at its most inspired and original and the entire band are tremendously tight and impassioned.  Make sure you get All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace when it is released: An album that marks the five-piece as a name to watch very closely.

It is going to be exciting to see what All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace sounds like.  With Speaker gaining a lot of attention- one of the best songs the band has created- there is no way the album will not impress and bring in new fans.  The band’s debut album showed just how assured, compact and talented they were: No fillers of weak moments; what you got was an authoritative statement from a hungry young band.  On their sophomore cut that ante has been upped and you get more colour, emotion and subject matter coming through: If anything, the newest material is more immediate and compelling.  Hounds and Speaker are too rare cuts of musical beef that drip with blood, gristle and headiness: A musical experience that will not escape the head in a hurry.  I know- from speaking with the band- how close the guys are and the friendships they have.  Having met and formed in their university days; what we have in 2016 is a band that are among music’s tightest and most exciting.  For fans of the Universal Thee’s earliest work you will not be disappointed: Those Pixies-cum-Teenage Fanclub elements are burning bright yet the guys sound more original and fresh now.  I hope the five-piece have a chance to come to London- I have been meaning to get to Edinburgh to see them- and it will give the capital a chance to embrace a band that would sound at home here.  London has some terrific bands emerging but none sound quite like our Russell-led quintet.  If you thought their album title was fascinating; that only really tells half the story: Delve deep and you discover songs that not only reflect everyday concerns but delve deep into the soul.  Led by the charming boy-girl interplay of James and Lisa Russell- with superb backing from the rest of the band- you have music that is of the highest order.  I have become fatigued listening to bands that tread the same water and seem uninspired: The play-as-loud-as-you-can four-piece that seems directionless and obsessed with stadium-sized choruses.  It is great having arena ambitions: If those huge choruses and energies are not concentrated and say anything worthwhile you will not capture the imagination and get inside the head.  What Universal Thee does is provide music that not only bristles with emotion and passion- two words that are apt under the circumstances- but provide quirky tales and introduce some rather odd characters.  Not just playing the same themes as everyone else- heartbreak and inner-inspections- you have a lyrics book that has so much diversity and wonderful storytelling.

Our Scottish five-piece (across the new album) sees them progress their sound: More complex and focused; it sees polished production give the songs big atmosphere and tonnes of nuance.  Still uplifting and insanely catchy- elements that were evident on their debut album- All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is even grittier and wide-ranging than Back to Earth.  Embracing new audiences and stretching their horizons: What we have is a natural evolution and new ambitions.  I know there has been a London show mooted- shall have to get onto that- and the band are looking ahead to another album- they will want to concentrate on promoting this one before they leap ahead.  I know the Edinburgh band has faced financial struggles and creative doubts- whether their new material was as sharp and mesmeric as could be- and they should have no fears.  Having grown and galvanised over the last year; it seems like 2016 will be their year: I would not be surprised to hear their latest cuts make their way onto the playlists of the nation’s most influential radio stations.  I hear so few bands that break-away from that all-boy/all-girl dynamic (the latter is a rarity in fact) and mix genders.  If you have female and male tones it gives the music more depth, richness and range.  It is all well having a front-man/woman providing vocals; how varied and surprising are the songs going to be?  If you broaden the palette and bring in another voice, you have so more space and potential when it comes to songwriting.  You do not have to make the songs so restricted and singular (by doing this).  Universal Thee is a band that exploit the twin voices they have in music that contrast soul-uplift and something rather haunting and teeth-baring.  Few bands in the modern climate manage to survive years down the line so it is impressive and a relief Universal Thee has overcome the obstacles and natural barriers the industry throws- growing stronger and more inspired as they go along.  I have mentioned how solo artists are being touted and emphasised this year- when it comes to critical acclaim and expectations- so we need those amazing bands to steal back some focus.  Too much stagnation and lacking inspiration have taken the microphone from the bands and given it to the solo players.  Let us hope All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is an album that bands should look at and take note of: It is how a record should be made and how it should affect you.  Hitting the brain, soul and heart: Congratulations to the intrepid five-piece and what they have achieved.  Speaker and Hounds are two sides to a record that surely will not disappoint.  More gritty, hard-hitting and variegated than ever: Our brave and electrifying band are on a quest to gain new ground and fans.  Given the quality they are putting out there; it will not be long until they are on the tongues of everyone.  Get involved with music (and a band) that will…

BLOW your mind and make you smile.




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