The Umbrella Sequence: Sparkler Cliché

[10 August 2004]

By Stefan Braidwood

The Kids Are A-OK

“I hope you are able to take a moment to check out this rock and roll album that we made,” drummer and percussionist Aaron Hageback has scribbled on the back of my press release. Without wanting to dent my image as an unimpeachable guardian of musical objectivity, this humble request instantly made me want to like their debut album proper (the quintet having already released an EP, The Disappearing Line/Athena, to reasonable success and much acclaim). Not that such base bribery was really necessary, as if there’s any justice an album as strong as this should propel this Minneapolis band at least as far, if not further, than their former labelmates on Ohev, Hot Hot Heat. All deviant musician hopefuls be warned, though—this only works once, and in the future I’ll want to be seeing the cold hard cash and Playboy bunnies in advance.

It has to be said, though, that they already came very strongly recommended—by my St. Paul-dwelling girlfriend, no less, whose exact words were “a band who finally deserve to be called ‘the new Radiohead’”. In order to give these words their full weight, I should point out that the lass is the third most Radiohead-obsessed person I have met (and I’ve met a few). Given that she would probably sell a small town into slavery in order to touch Thom Yorke (whom I’ve met a few times), I had a quick check out my window for meteors, tidal waves or other signs of an apocalyptic Second Coming before sitting down to have a damn good listen. It turns out that her description was a surprisingly objective sonic one, although this album tones down considerably what was, on the EP, an almost frighteningly close resemblance.

Chief amongst the changes is that singer Ryan Rupprecht only sounds like Thom in flashes now; although given that he seems to be trying to fill Johnny Greenwood’s (multi-instru)mentalist role in the band as well, (playing Wurlitzer, “ratty old pump organ”, Rhodes, Roland XP-10, acoustic guitar and even the retro-dinky Moog Liberation as well as singing), perhaps he’s just too busy to nail his nigh-perfect imitation all the time.

None of this is to say that the resemblance runs anywhere close to a lack of imagination, or mimicked songwriting; The Umbrella Sequence have more than enough strengths (and the odd weakness) of their own. It’s just that they’ve absorbed the full scope of the Radiohead approach from about Kid A onwards and made it their own, using a more Grandaddy-esque range of instruments (see “ratty old pump organ”) and melding them to the stutters, beats and drones of recalcitrant electronica in a manner that to my ear is more organic and effective than the colder, more distant and dysfunctional aura of some recent Radiohead efforts.

Whilst they have mastered the emotive and interesting soundscapes (the end of “A Presswood Smile”, which tapers off into huge caverns of luminescent fog, is lovely), they come off a lot shorter when it comes to hooks or readily comprehensible, resonant lyrics, though. Whilst the impression is always one of neurotically haunted care, with some intriguing if slightly pretentious imagery, lines like “It doesn’t really hurt/anyone/to be nice” (from “Athena”) aren’t really up to scratch when bands like TV On The Radio are marauding around the alt-rock scene.

With a full, evocative gamut of compositions running from the blissfully expansive, through the waveringly eerie to the aggressively strident (and oddly groovy), though, everything is damn affecting, lyrical shortcomings or no. Whilst they must be getting utterly stick of the comparisons with That Band From Oxford by now, it should be stressed that for a debut album this is quite stunningly realised, assured and varied music- not exactly something you could say of Pablo Honey. To have mastered this much in just two years of playing together is an amazing feat, and one which promises truly great things given a few more years’ experience to hone and develop their sound, their songwriting and themselves.

Dear Aaron, I hope not too many moments pass before I get to check out the next rock and roll album that you make, because I like this one lots. Still not entirely sure about the group name, though. Yours, Stefan B.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/umbrellasequence-sparkler/