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Oh Wonder: Ultralife (Republic/Universal)

Jul. 25, 2017
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Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West posted their first Oh Wonder track anonymously on SoundCloud in the fall of 2014. As they kept posting one new song per every succeeding month, their popularity increased until, as they seem to tell the story, they had no choice but to become an official going concern with a 2015 self-titled debut album. 

That hint of reluctance remains intrinsic to Oh Wonder even as it expands to include a bassist and drummer, prepares for a high-mileage American tour and releases its second album, Ultralife. So, however, does a gently utilized knack for wrapping electronic pop in the allure of fragile humanity.

Individually, Vander Gucht and West are among the least emphatic vocalists in their nebulous genre, but there is a slowly cumulative power in the space between her lilting femininity and his misleadingly flat-affect lower register, and their understatement reveals how their counterparts, those who aspire closer to the center of the mainstream, push too much drama.

Even the references to other pop songs are genteel and undramatic: “Bigger Than Love” paraphrases Rihanna’s “We Found Love” so it refracts despair; “Lifetimes” almost directly quotes the piano figure plinking through Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets”; and “All About You” converts the spiteful spitting of Billy Joel’s “Big Shot” into a more diaphanous dis.

Oh Wonder isn’t always so sheer: “Heart Strings” opens from a minimal keyboard hop and a scattering of Mitchell Froomish sonic quirks into a lush chorus that could pass for Bacharach’s adaptation to 21st-century synthesizers and rhythms, while “Slip Away” builds up a nearly clichéd melody for music box until it’s a sonic version of a sweet-smelling cloud.

Despite the overarching mistiness of Ultralife—cloudy, diaphanous, nebulous—its final emotional weight is heavy and full, and, despite Oh Wonder’s reluctance about pop stardom, it embraces the actual pop.

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