No more leaking roof,
No more sinking ship,
No more haunted house,
No more self loathing,
No more shoe-gazing
So intones vocalist Ryan Rupprecht on “This Time We’re Positive”, a nasally subterranean downer off the Umbrella Sequences’ Events. This pregnant lyric is Yorkesian, first name Thom, in appearance and aural effect (see: “No alarms and no surprises, please”). Rupprecht, however, seems to issue the negatively couched lines as a declaration of stylistic intent: past Radiohead allusions, so persistent and oversold, can take leave of this Minneapolis quartet. The future is not one of Kid Bs and Cs. Borne out by Events, their second album, the Umbrella Sequence can still stir up the sonic disrepair of a “leaking roof”, but not without flights of indie-pop fancy, organic Americana, and taut-rock thrillers closely standing by.
Their ’03 debut, Sparkler Cliché, was the vehicle for that raft of Radiohead citations. Events finalizes the departure, though last year’s Crossing the Wires EP signaled a veering aesthetic direction. Its shambolic makeup – from the prog-pop of the title track to the throwback guitar jolt of “100 Years” – wasn’t easy to place and presaged the genre scatter of U.B’s current work. So, as a unit, Events is strange and solid, perhaps too variegated to fully cohere. As a collection of unfettered moments, it soars, deploying precise production, warm melodies, and motley musical bearings to construct whirling pop dreamscapes.
It’s instructive to note what bookends the sewer-dark chill of “This Time We’re Positive”. Preceding is the opener, “Urban Lull (At Once Charmed)”, a sparkling midsummer night’s dream. “Lull” plays out like a delectable blend of reality and fantasy, with a water-clear guitar strum contrasting the space punch of its percussion effects (uber Flaming Lips). As the start-up single, it also engages immediately, never allowing production minutiae to steal the pop center. You then leapfrog “Positive” to arrive at “Bus 12”, which recalls the staccato bop of “Pins and Needles” (from the Wires EP). Primary ax-slinger Jacob Swogger helms its headswirl of flashing guitars that supplies the magnetic pull.
The point is, over the course of tracks one, two, and three, the Umbrella Sequence shift gears, colors, and moods several times over, all while maintaining a tight economy of songcraft. The surface is indeed fairly simple. Events basks in an accessibly mysterious quality. Its nine entries are all pop of a recognizable modulation, though there’s no working roadmap for all the detours, no artistic safety zone to be tempted into.
Amidst its left and right turns, the genuine, very human heart of Events beats most lucidly on “At the Great Lake”, a stunner of balance and slow-cooked musicianship. Its streaks of woozy steel guitar are the first treat, but the real meat comes in its collage of buildups and drop-downs: a prickly calmness segues into trembling electrics which dive into soothing organ clicks and later resurge. Like the whole of Events, “Lake” consciously careens from passage to passage, from pace to pace, seeking out melodies of different stripes.
So where does the affecting sentiment of “Lake” spring from? Its garden-fresh instrumentation is a starting point. But Rupprecht’s vocals hold most of the emotional water, like the charmed, shtick-free way he delivers, “Oh my goodness sakes”. Or the light pathos he lends to “Take the job / Take your coffee break”. His wordplay is often opaque and rarely narrative-focused. He favors the tone and inflection of language over its literal denotation to transmit meaning. On the drowsy send-off, “Purple Roads”, his reedy tenor speaks of “smokers in basements” – an innocuous phrase – like they’re a tragic lot. “Life Events and Sinking Ships”, a shimmering and superb Grandaddy rambler, opens with “I am a rocking chair” – a puzzling lede for sure. But such obscurity gels into Events’ mix of the real and unreal. Consider this: near upon the heels of “Ships” is “The Need to Make Lists”, an impulse of man as fundamental and almost survivalist as seeking out food and shelter. No longer an article of furniture, Rupprecht quickly reassumes his humanity.
Just as quickly, it seems, Events bows out, like a string of celebrations too short-lived. Its running time is a parsimonious 34 minutes, only six longer than the Wires EP. A half hour’s worth of material can only leave impressions, not permanent indentations. So how does this outing position the Umbrella Sequence in their race for the indie prize? Events stands as a near-great album, but is unavoidably transitional at its core. It’s a work that urgently demands a follow-up. Determining what swath of their tastes ultimately wins out – like the restive lightning rock of “Et Tu Forte?” and “Elephant”, the electro-pop of “Urban Lull”, or maybe even a Radiohead flashback – is the next bold and necessary step. How about this for a tidy wrap-up? Events is their broad-based, pop armory; now what’s the weapon of choice?
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// Notes from the Road
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