May 31, 2005

Ume "Urgent Sea"

Most people who actually pay attention to music criticism will agree that when a review is saturated with comparisons to other bands, it’s usually a sign of lazy journalism on the critic’s part. Every once in a while, though, a band comes along whose music owes such a huge debt to another band that writing about it without acknowledging said debt would be delusional at best and ignorant at worst. Such is the case with Houston trio Ume, whose debut album Urgent Sea mimics early Blonde Redhead --- and, by extension, ALL eras of Sonic Youth --- so thoroughly that only the deaf would not be able to notice it.

The only moment of Urgent Sea on which Ume deviates from this template is the beginning of album opener “Wake.” Vocalist/guitarist Lauren Larson plays a slow, heavy and reverb-drenched riff that would make the Melvins’ Buzz Osborne cock an eyebrow. Once she steps up to the microphone, though, the similarity between her high-pitched sigh and that of Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino is instantly noticeable (although Larson’s voice is a bit raspier). Larson’s guitar playing, however, is way better than Makino’s, and the frequent tempo changes that she and her rhythm section insert into “Wake” give it an almost epic quality.

The mimicry becomes more palpable on the next track, “A Maze.” It begins with the same tom-heavy drumming and minor-2nd note clusters that many a Sonic Youth song employed during the late 1980s. Bassist Eric Larson steps up to the mike with his slightly flat croon; the juxtaposition with his voice and Lauren’s sounds…well, just like Kazu and Amedeo Pace. On the third song, “Hive-Mind,” Lauren’s voice becomes more unhinged, and her screaming and growling dives right into Kim Gordon territory. Despite the near-total lack of originality, the strength of Ume’s writing and musicianship helps Urgent Sea begin on a high note. Unfortunately, Lauren starts getting carried away about halfway through.

Things start going wrong on the fourth song, “Hurricane.” Lauren grunts her way through the song, which prevents her from reaching notes that she could have easily hit if she simply sang them straight. I don’t even like it when Kim Gordon grunts her way through a Sonic Youth song, so listening to a second-rate impersonation of it is completely out of the question. Lauren’s regurgitation of the same tricks on her guitar (quarter-note staccato melodies, minor-2nd note clusters) starts to grate. By the time the sixth track (“My Sweet Time”) comes along, I start wishing that Lauren would stop singing along to her guitar lines note-for-note. Eric’s vocal appearance on the eighth track, “Push Me Pull U,” ends up becoming a nice change of pace from Lauren’s caterwauling.

As much as I hate to drop the burden of Urgent Sea’s failure solely on Lauren’s shoulders, it has to be done. I think she’s a much better singer and guitarist than her performances on this album indicate, but she’s too obsessed with becoming the Lone Star Kim Gordon to truly take advantage of her skills. Ume writes good songs, and their rhythm section is solid throughout. However, until the Larsons develop a sound that they can truly call their own (or, at least, take more cues from Blonde Redhead’s fifth album than from their third), checking their music out will never be a matter of…well, urgency.

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website:
Label Website:

No comments: