Album Review: Yumi Zouma – Yoncalla

A debut that glistens to the point of distraction but maintains a slippery sense of humanity at its core




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In February 2011, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck the city of Christchurch in New Zealand, killing 185 people and leaving the rest to contend with a life in literal ruins. Some stayed and rebuilt while others left for greener and steadier pastures, but all remain affected by a legacy of displacement. This includes the four members of dream pop band Yumi Zouma, who have scattered across the globe in the years since the quake. Lead singer Christie Simpson and touring member Sam Perry still live in Christchurch, but their bandmates Josh Burgess and Charlie Ryder have relocated to New York City and Paris, respectively. It’s almost too easy to draw a metaphor between the band and the city that remains, at least, their spiritual home: both are fractured, locked in a struggle to be whole.

But that metaphor seems a bit disingenuous, and it doesn’t pass the smell test anyway. Unlike Christchurch, where residents still live amidst rubble and have accepted a degree of chaos as a daily fact of life, Yumi Zouma presents a glistening surface to the world. Call it disco with a dash of indie pop or the other way around — it doesn’t much matter, so long as the impression you’re left with is smoother than the surface of a roller rink. In an interview with Live Nation TV last year, Burgess professed something that would probably be considered sacrilege to most musicians who grew up in the era before digitized music hit the mainstream. “I don’t like live bands that much,” he said, “but I’ll go see DJs.”

Before you call the guy out for not comprehending the visceral pleasures that come with live music, consider the fact of his band’s existence. Yumi Zouma do not presume to rock or roll, having pieced together their first two EPs from far-flung locations across the globe, in isolation from each other and lacking the intimacy of even a face-to-face interaction. The songs on those EPs sound beautiful but curiously detached. It’s perfect music for listening to in an airport or Japanese hotel, places that offer ultramodern amenities without the warm comforts of home.

The band’s debut full-length, Yoncalla, doesn’t entirely erase the sense of displacement that will probably stick to them forever, but it does sound more lived-in than anything they’ve made before. Simpson’s feather-light vocals don’t exactly invite the listener into her head or her heart, but they don’t actively push away, either. The singer stakes out her territory in the middle distance, avoiding all-out confessionalism but offering a wide brush of emotion with which to paint. “Just breathe/ Just breathe, and then over the barricade,” she sings on opening track “Barricade (Matter Of Fact)”, calling to mind both the body and the barriers that separate it from other bodies. The song eventually swells and soars, but it’s the quiet moments — the breathy verses, the single-note guitar lines that occasionally punctuate them — that stand out.

Though tracks like “Barricade” and closer “Drachma” dwell in the same dreamy soundscapes as Yumi Zouma’s Cascine label-mates, the group has an irrepressible inclination toward dance pop that makes them an odd fit with their more ethereally minded peers. While they never reach the all-out exuberance of disco’s glory days, tracks like “Yesterday” benefit from crisp, upbeat percussion and bass parts that border on groovy. Similarly, the guitar melodies that gently guide standout single “Keep It Close To Me” and “Better When I’m By Your Side” give both tracks a sense of heat to go with synthpop’s colder, more precise qualities. New Order — another group that specializes in blending raw human emotion with disco dance beats — is probably the most obvious influence throughout Yoncalla, cropping up most unmistakably on “Text From Sweden”, a song that works nearly perfectly until the cheesy one-sided phone conversation in the bridge.

The past couple of years have brought no shortage of great synthpop, and it can be difficult for a band to stand on its own merits in such a crowded field. Maybe it’s their unusual personal dynamic or the timeless quality of their music — Yoncalla borrows heavily from the ‘70s and ‘80s while never seeming anything less than modern — but Yumi Zouma seem to have stumbled upon a formula that separates them just enough to pique interest. Sure, sometimes it glistens to the point of distraction, but can you really blame a band from Christchurch from trying to build something new and shiny from life’s rubble heap?

Essential Tracks: “Barricade (Matter Of Fact)”, “Keep It Close To Me”, and “Short Truth”