'Taking Sweets From Strangers,' the debut album from female-fronted Ultraxine is a hit and miss affair. For every track of fizzy, infectious pop-punk, there's another where Ultraxine shed their snotty punk vocals and galloping riffs and take a more subdued route. However, when they do get it right, Ultraxine are unashamedly good fun.
Standout track 'What I Want' is everything pop-punk should be: exhilarating riffs played at double speed, and upbeat, sugary lyrics that are guaranteed to leave a smile on your face.
'Butterflies' offers up more breakneck riffs and grin-inducing lyrics, but only after an intriguing opening section of twinkling synths and halting, sing-song vocals. This ensures that when the punky riffs finally kick in, 'Butterflies' feels like even more of a headrush after the slow build-up.
The other area where Ultraxine shine, is their vocals. Co-vocalists Taz and Kate have opposing voices, and they allow each song's style and lyrical content to dictate who takes over lead vocal duties. Thus, we get fittingly snotty, shouty punk vocals for the riotous drinking anthem 'Drunken Celebration,' and a pleasantly youthful voice leading us through the slow-burning 'Tremulous' and 'Confusion.'
In a stroke of genius, Taz and Kate frequently combine their voices to deliver a double-layered vocal that's sweet and charismatic, but has an abrasive punk edge. These dual vocals frequently steer 'Taking Sweets From Strangers' more towards the punk end of the pop-punk spectrum, with 'Butterflies' and 'Fake' in particular sounding all the more edgy, for their dual vocals.
Even with Ultraxine's less accomplished songs, such as the overly-meandering 'Confusion' and the stripped-down indie of 'House of Straw,' the complex interaction between the two vocalists means there's always something to hold listener interest.
'Fake' makes particularly innovative use of Ultraxine's vocal prowess, with verses of poppy vocals highlighting the youthful lyrics and subject matter, while dual vocals are employed on the pre-chorus build-up to create a subtly darker, brooding undertone. 'Fake' may be guilty of settling into a musical rut, with the same riff used over and over, but the variety and complexity of the vocals more than compensates for the musical repetition.
Ultraxine seem to know that their vocals are their strongest selling point, as they crow-bar in vocal flourishes at every opportunity. These include various spoken passages, and some free-style inspired randomness, such as a cry of "you-ooooh-ooooh-oooooh" that crops up on both 'Butterflies' and 'Think of You,' and a "lalalalala" ending on 'House of Straw.' Despite the essential cheesiness of these techniques, Ultraxine's charisma and fun vibe, means you'll go along with it and may even secretly enjoy these silly vocals.
However, as soon as Ultraxine take things down a notch, they become somewhat underwhelming. The self-conscious indie cool of 'House of Straw' has all of the awkward musical hang-ups of the genre without any of the angular hooks the best of indie can deliver. Consequently, 'House of Straw' feels like too much hard work, for too little reward.
Likewise, slow-burner 'Confusion' has a pleasantly undemanding, summery swing, but it's content to meander along with only the occasional crunchy riff and snotty, punk vocal adding some bite to proceedings
There's only one instance where Ultraxine achieve maximum catchiness without the help of any pop-punk chirpiness, and that's with 'Think of You.' This song's brisk, spoken vocals are pattered out over twitchy chords, creating an off-kilter hook, and proving that Ultraxine's refusal to play it safe and stick to a genre they seem to have a knack for, wasn't all in vain.
Ultraxine have a flair for penning pop-punk, with an emphasis on the punk. 'Taking Sweets From Strangers' may leave you with the impression that Ultraxine are struggling to decide how they want to sound, but 'Butterflies,' 'Fake' and 'What I Want' are good, uncomplicated fun, and definitely worth a listen if you're partial to a bit of pop-punk. The rest of this album may lack bite, but it has enough vocal hooks, twitchy indie rhythms and charismatic, spoken passages, to make for intriguing listening.
'Intense and claustrophobic music from Bradford. Extra proof, as if anyone needed it, of the Leeds/Bradford axis of musical accomplishment. More edge than a very edgy thing.'