(Photo Credit: Ginger Fierstein)
Hamilton Ulmer finds weird ways to sing the blues. The music he creates as Makeunder is both maximalist and brutally raw, full of urgency while simultaneously fixated on the most minute details. His first EP, Radiate, Satellite, was recorded over five days on a laptop microphone, using only a handful of old instruments to tell the story of “the life and death of a rural Californian family.” What it lacked in sound quality it made up for in trap doors and unexpected turns; like the childhood home that Ulmer sings about (and in) over the course of its five songs, the music is haunted.
Yet “What a Lovely Bandsaw!”, the first taste of the upcoming Great Headless Blank EP, proves that Ulmer was merely getting his feet wet on Radiate, Satellite. In the two years since its release, Makeunder has expanded to a septet, drawing vocalists, string players, and guitars into the group. Great Headless Blank takes the disorienting, grandiose elements of Radiate, Satellite and pushes them to their extremes.
Although comparisons to the Dirty Projectors are apt and perhaps inevitable, a more appropriate line can be drawn to the Flaming Lips’ outlandish, equally-disorienting Zaireeka; four discs played simultaneously, ideally in a circle surrounding the listeners, in which guitars explode, aerosol cans hiss from hidden corners, dogs bark, and something inevitably comes in off-beat. Both records leave you lightheaded and utterly confused, packing more “WTF” moments than a Vice documentary.
Though “What a Lovely Bandsaw!” tells the devastating story of Ulmer emptying and selling his father’s house after his death, a listener without a grasp on the English language may suspect that it’s a love song or a left-field anthem. Even when you’re overwhelmed by the density of the arrangements and the visceral pain in Ulmer’s lyrics, the song remains weightless; its chaos kept in check by Ulmer’s sinuous voice. This is a song of colossal power, built on extensive nuance. It needs, and rewards, multiple listens. Sometimes, Ulmer seems to be suggesting, you need more than three chords to sing the blues. A lot more.
Listen to “What a Lovely Bandsaw!” below: