SYNTHS AND SENSIBILITY

After driving around with my 8-year-old daughter listening to the recent four-song release from Jacksonville band Ursula, I asked her what she thought. “I liked ‘Hot Water’ the least.”

“Got it,” I said. “You didn’t like ‘Hot Water.'”

“No,” she clarified. “I liked it, I just liked it least.”

Fair enough. And, I have to say, I agree with her. Except the “liking least” part. I actually don’t like that song at all. But we’ll get to that.

A quasi-electronic trio featuring guitarist and keyboardist Sam Farmer, his wife, Corina, on vocals and bass, and drummer Brad Daninger, Ursula is an interesting mix of ’80s alternative, ’90s grunge and modern pop. Fans of ’90s rockers Joydrop will really enjoy Ursula’s eponymous debut. Corina Farmer could easily take Tara Slone’s place as lead singer of the Canadian quartet, considering Slone kind of blew her career by trying out for INXS on the reality show Rock Star: INXS. I mean, INXS was marginal at best, and Joydrop, despite its inability to crack the big-time pop market of their day, was a much better band. Many will argue with me on this point. But I digress.

Back to Ursula … Album-opener “Seer” is a bit deceiving, as its electronic pulse-groove suggests an EP full of dark synth-rock. Mid-tempo and minor key, “Seer” drones along with Corina laying down some terrific melodies. The song itself doesn’t necessarily thrill, but Corina manages to lift the tune with some inspired vocal twists. In the last third of the song, things really get moving, with big distortion and Daninger throwing down a fat groove. My kid thought that was a nice addition. Me, too.

But it’s the second track that really captures the best of what Ursula has to offer. Very Joydrop-py in structure and melody, “Impulse” is a pop song in the best sense – upbeat, sing-along-able, yet far-from-cheeseball. Great layered harmonies, a brief breakdown with chunky muted guitars, and strong backbeat. Yes, you can dance to it. This one reminds me of summer.

“Rattled” comes next, another mid-tempo groove with more of Corina’s powerful yet prepossessing vocals. Farmer’s arpeggiated guitar line during the bridge could have appeared on Van Halen’s Fair Warning, which, to me, is a good thing. Farmer is actually a strong guitarist, though he keeps his soloing to a minimum. Smart move for a song like “Rattled.” (My daughter liked this one best.)

And so we come to “Hot Water,” my daughter’s least-favorite and my not-favorite-at-all. In casual conversation just the other day, Sam Farmer said to me, “It’s just a Billy Idol song.” Truer words … I mean it is pretty much “Rebel Yell” mashed up with “Dancing with Myself.” In fact, there is one specific transition that is lifted verbatim from “Rebel Yell,” notes, pattern and all. Now, I don’t have a problem with stealing from other artists, I simply request that you steal from good artists. Here we have a four-song demo, and we use up one-quarter on a Billy Idol clone. Not sure I get it, but I’m sure there are a few ’80s die-hards who will enjoy the nostalgia this one evokes. Good for you.

The production is rather spot-on here, care of Stan Martell. Big drums, crunchy guitars and buzzy synths fill the space, giving plenty of room for Corina’s vocals, which is really the reason I keep coming back to this album. The songwriting is solid if somewhat safe, but Corina’s vocals elevate the whole experience. Really good stuff.

A quick anecdote before we close: Years ago – many years ago – when I was a drum instructor at a San Marco recording studio, I walked into the studio to see a grubby teenager sleeping on the floor in the corner in his street clothes, looking quite corpse-like. It was Sam Farmer, probably in his Man-Size Rat days, sleeping off what must have been a night of chemically enhanced amusement. (I hypothesize, of course.) He’s taller now, a gainfully employed videographer, and still making music. All good things. The guy is talented, to be sure.

I wouldn’t mind hearing a full-length from Ursula in the near future – one that forgoes any sonic references to a sneering, leather-clad pop idol from our collective past.

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