Ultimatum, the first release from the Long Winters since 2003’s When I Pretend to Fall, more firmly establishes this act in the current canon of rising indie-pop wunderkids. Lead singer/songwriter John Roderick more clearly highlights his unique songwriting style on this much more experimental release and takes a place alongside fellow artists John Vanderslice and John Darnielle.
The four new songs on Ultimatum offer a new twist on the Long Winters’ sound, adding in string quartets and analog synths, toy keyboards, trashed drum loops, and other assorted studio quirks. While you still get Roderick’s unique voice and enough folk-influenced guitarwork, the pop structure of his earlier work is the framework over which these additional sounds are added. The songs themselves offer tales of disaster, which is contrasted by the Winters’ indie-pop style.
“The Commander Things Aloud” starts things off with a lush and lovely sound, mixing in drum loops, analog synths, a lush backdrop of atmospheric noise, and some odd noises. The key here, however, is these additions never overpower the focus, which is Roderick’s voice and piano. Instead, they add depth and breadth to the song, making it simultaneously pretty and a tad psychedelic in style. If all that sounds a little overwhelming, the title track is more simple, featuring gorgeous acoustic guitar picking and Roderick’s voice with a more subtle instrumental backing that includes lovely strings. My personal favorite track here, however, is “Everything is Talking,” a lush pop song whose keyboards give it an almost 60s AM-pop feel, while the chorus is catchy enough to have your head bobbing along eagerly. “Delicate Hands” has perhaps Roderick’s best lyrical and vocal work on the album, and its sound is more common of modern indie pop, perhaps leaning closer to Death Cab for Cutie’s style.
The last two songs here are live tracks, featuring simply Roderick and his acoustic guitar. While they’re quite a change from the studio work of the previous four tracks, they do a nice job of featuring Roderick’s talent. “Bride & Bridal” was one of my favorites from the full-length, and it showcases extremely passionate vocals. “Ultimatum” live is quite pretty and shows the song can be just as functional without the studio work.
I have no idea if the next Long Winters release will continue on the more lush and experimental sound of Ultimatum, and in a way, it doesn’t need to. This is a perfect example of artists using the EP form to try new things, offering a conceptual release that shows off a different yet equally effective sound. And it’s an EP that stands on its own, which is mighty rare these days.