Photo: Sam Kaufman / Courtesy of Topshelf Records

Gregory Uhlmann’s ‘Neighborhood Watch’ Is a Mesmerizing Art Rock Album

Acclaimed guitarist and composer Gregory Uhlmann charms and confounds with his gorgeous, layered sophomore solo album, Neighborhood Watch.

Neighborhood Watch
Gregory Uhlmann
Topshelf Records
24 July 2020

With a resume like Gregory Uhlmann’s, the next creative move is always anyone’s guess. Whether it’s his work with Perfume Genius, as a member of quirky art-rockers Fell Runner or the improvisational jazz trio Typical Sisters, Uhlmann’s work redefines the phrase “wide and varied”. And that’s not even counting his chamber ensemble work and scores for dance, film, television, and online media. Even his 2016 solo album Odd Job was a bit of a curveball – the cracked, minimalist folk seems a bit anachronistic (yet no less fascinating) next to the rest of his accomplishments.

Uhlmann’s latest solo album, Neighborhood Watch, is another opportunity for him to tweak his repertoire. It seems inevitable that the album will be compared alongside Odd Job. Essentially, it’s a thicker, denser, more layered follow-up, and one that sees Uhlmann refreshingly playing around with arrangements and instrumentation. The opening track, “Coupon”, begins with a loose, odd melody reminiscent of Van Dyke Parks (who Uhlmann has been compared to on more than one occasion). But the song soon slips into a comfortable, guitar-based groove, full of buzzing, futuristic synthesizer touches. It’s an accurate representation of what’s to come. Uhlmann enjoys jumping around between sub-genres but all the while remaining fixed on irresistible melodies and solid riffs.

For an artist who receives well-deserved acclaim as a highly-skilled guitarist — his improvisational work as a member of Typical Sisters is one of the strongest examples — Neighborhood Watch seems more fixed on the idea of creating a layered indie-rock groove mixed with plenty of sonic surprises. The single “Spice Girls” rumbles along like an early Radiohead track, a crunchy rhythm guitar meshing with spacey keyboard lines reminiscent of a classic Cars album. In keeping with the album’s rough theme of domestic bliss in early adulthood, Uhlmann sings about the ups and downs of relationships with warm familiarity and refreshing directness. “The sun has barely shown its face / We’re already knee-deep into some pointless debate / Sometimes I say things without thinking through / I hope that you know that I love you / I think you do.”

And while there are certainly differences between this album and Odd Job, he revisits the template of that previous album on more than one occasion. Perhaps most strongly on the gorgeous, otherworldly “Santa Fe”, which reminisces on Uhlmann’s childhood trips to the US Southwest with his grandparents. Harmonizing with Meg Duffy, Uhlmann creates something of an interplanetary ambient folk atmosphere, hushed vocals mixing with guitars and a sci-fi synth backdrop. It’s a weird world too seductive to want to leave.

Fans of Uhlmann’s more atonal side will find comfort in the playful “Cool Breeze”, which veers back and forth between light psychedelic pop and a distorted, lumbering wall of noise. For the Chicago-raised, LA-based Uhlmann, the song is a tribute to the oppressive heat of his adopted town, with the loud parts creating a sonic equivalent to the temperatures. “Fry an egg on the street,” he sings, “Even a dog couldn’t breathe choking in the heat.” On “Benny”, Uhlmann continues to mine the loud/quiet/loud dynamics of so much 1990s indie rock but turns it on its head with added layers of keyboards and strings that thicken the sound without turning it into misdirected chaos.

The idea of combining themes of everyday life and domesticity with thorny musical concepts is nothing new, but the way Uhlmann manages to it so effortlessly is one of the many warm pleasures of this striking album. “When you’re near, I want you to go,” Uhlmann croons on the gentle, twanging “Bed”. “But when you’re far, I’m a puddle. I’m a mope.” With Neighborhood Watch, Uhlmann has pulled off the neat trick of creating something that pleases fans of singer-songwriter-based rock while keeping his refreshing spirit of weirdness intact. With this unusual and delightful combination of rock, folk, ambient, and psychedelia, Gregory Uhlmann may have stumbled upon a brand new genre.

RATING 8 / 10