August 13, 2004

electro group "ummo"

Thirteen years after the release of their masterwork Loveless, it’s amazing how fertile My Bloody Valentine’s sound remains. So many bands continue to use their whammy bars and distortion pedals to create infinitesimal variations on the MBV template that not a year goes by in which I don’t seriously consider holding an annual National Shoegazers Convention. This convention would climax with the giving of the Kevin Shields award to the band that did the most that year to further his musical legacy. Lovesliescrushing would have been shoo-ins for 1995. The Swirlies would have had 1996 on lock. Lenola would have taken 1997 and 1999. All Natural Lemon and Lime Flavors owned 1998. You get the picture. Sacramento outfit the Electro Group stole 2001 from Mahogany by a hair with their awesome album A New Pacifica. Unfortunately, after a small tour in which they played one of the best sets I’ve ever seen in Austin to a crowd of *maybe* 30 people, they seemed to disappear off the face of the Earth for a while.

Three years later, I’m dodging the end-of-summer doldrums by rocking out to their new EP Ummo, which quietly announces their resurgence with a collection of new recordings and tracks from previously released singles and compilations. I’ll be darned if it isn’t just as much of a breath of fresh air as A New Pacifica three years ago. This is strange when one considers that the only significant change that the Electro Group have made since their debut is an increase in production values (that is, the drums are higher up in the mix). As soon as opener “Captain New Mexico” begins, though, you’ll agree that this band’s creative stubbornness is a virtue.

The Electro Group’s sound can be broken down quite easily. Ian Hernandez, who lays down thick and fuzzy bass lines that keep the sound much denser than the band’s power-trio format would indicate. Ian Jacobsen stacks up what sounds like layers of droning guitars that avoid bar-chord drudgery by any means necessary, even if it means his instrument sounds like a motor refusing to start (“Noon Blu Apples,” which is a BALLAD) or a police siren (“My Machines”). On top of his guitars, he sings in a breathy falsetto that most people would assume came from a girl before doing further research. In fact, he may be a vocal twin of Lenola’s Jay Laughlin, which basically puts them in competition for the Friendliest Voice in All of Rock. Then, there’s drummer Matt Hull, who plays in a rigid and martial style akin to Unwound’s Sara Lund. His rhythms keep the rest of the music from disappearing into the ether, making Electro Group a much more aggressive band than most of their remaining peers. Ummo is definitely shoegaze that you can bang your head to, especially during the instrumental title track.

The most crucial component of the Electro Group’s sound, though, is strong songwriting. You might never be able to make out what Ian’s singing, but you’ll have at least half of the songs on Ummo stuck in your head after the CD ends. The better songs on this EP (“Captain,” “Machines,” and my personal favorite “Panzer Treat”) stand out because of distinct vocal melodies that keep the music from devolving into mere distorted grinding. If the band can step up their productivity and make a sophomore album that delivers on the promise of Ummo, I smell a Shoegaze Convention three-peat. As it is, they’re already a sure bet for the 2004 Kevin Shields award.

--Sean Padilla

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