The first time I listened to Ume’s most recent full-length, Phantoms, I was driving through a lightning storm, with big, bulging raindrops smacking the windshield while bright sparks danced across the sky faster than my eyes could follow. As I drove, singer/guitarist Lauren Larson’s guitar spiraled and jabbed around her drifting/howling vocals, building an intricate pattern around the murky, thundering rumble generated by bassist Eric Larson and new drummer Rachel Fuhrer.
I swear to God, at one point I thought the car was going to be struck dead-on by a lance of electricity and somehow be sucked upwards into the clouds like it (and I inside it) were headed up into some sort of alien mothership.
I know, I know; it’s just that listening to Ume is like that. They make this ferocious, fiery roar that draws equally from Black Angels-style psych-rock, MBV-esque dreampop, and straight-up guitar metal but never swears its allegiance to anything but itself, and it’s awesome to behold, the kind of sound that makes you wonder what’s real and what’s not, and halfway expect strange things to happen.
It’s partly due to Larson’s skill at coming up with circular, repetitive riffs that dance and wind in on themselves hypnotically — it’s seriously hard not to listen and feel your head start nodding unconsciously — but it’s also just this overall dark, mysterious vibe the band crafts throughout. Larson and company seem to hint at truths and secrets beyond what she actually croons/speaks sweetly across the surface of the whole thing, something that brings to mind the similarly-dark mr. Gnome or Jeff Mangum’s obtusely strange, eerie Neutral Milk Hotel (heck, final track “The Task” actually reminds me of “Two-Headed Boy”).
Longtime fans of the band may be a bit put off by the leaner, less-heavy sound Ume’s evolved into, but it’s been coming for quite some time; 2008′s Sunshower EP laid the groundwork, and this album sees the band embracing it fully and to awesome effect. See debut single “Captive,” which is sleek and lush despite the quiet darkness it grabs hold of, for one example; the guitars seesaw back and forth and chime like something off an early Sonic Youth album, as layer upon layer of sound builds beneath. The following track, “The Push,” is bright and surprisingly warm, with an honest-to-God chorus and vocal melody worthy of a long-lost Darling Buds B-side, even though the signature Ume guitar still lurks behind the curtain.
“Burst,” for its part, is slower and more deliberate, starting off with a rumbling, low-slung bass and marching drums before the guitar nonchalantly slides in; there’s a fair resemblance to Warpaint here, but where that band (much as I like them, don’t get me wrong) would be content to stand and burn in place, Ume are off and running, propelled along by those proggy, mesmerizing guitar lines.
On the other end of things, “Run Wild” makes me think of a less-airy version of fey pseudo-goth-popsters Eisley, one that dresses all in leather and roams from bar picking fights just because all that energy’s got to go somewhere. It’s pleading and heavy all at once, with a great, great circular riff that repeats in the middle of the sound.
With Phantoms, it finally, finally feels like Ume have hit their stride. They’ve carved out a strange, alluring niche for themselves, all while firmly not caring what the hell anybody else thinks, and in the process they’ve created something utterly incredible. Expect great things, seriously.