Yumi Zouma have crafted an album for the summer, positively gleaming with synths and airy vocals that intone sunshine.
Writing about Jamie xx's glowing banger "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)" for PopMatters' Best Songs of 2015 list, I qualified "song[s] of the summer" as "trite and usually reward[ing] formulaic, prosaic pop." Leave it to 2016 to seek to prove me wrong, with the dancehall bliss of Rihanna and Drake's "Work" and the multifaceted worldliness of Drake's "One Dance" proving refreshing reprieves in the same vein as "Good Times" last year. Even the lesser-known Living Hour's "Summer Smog" sounds exactly as smoky as its title suggests and deserves a spot on playlists designed for long drives on humid nights. But there had yet to be an album this year that, start-to-finish, captured what makes this season so appealing. Enter New Zealand band Yumi Zouma's full-length debut Yoncalla.
With tropical house dubbed 2015's "breakout music genre", listeners of pop radio these past few months will find a similar breeziness to Yoncalla, albeit without the aid of steel drums and solo synth breaks. Instead, this is tropical indie pop, relying on wispy vocals and layered "ah"s in the background akin to the collective chatter of a crowded beach; you have to lean in to hear who's next to you in your group while the other patrons create a calming buzz all around. On highlight "Remember You at All", for example, vocalist Kim Pflaum's singing melts into a synth line and deep bass that makes the individual words difficult to parse but the emotion as clear as day.
Similar to dream pop, this tropical indie variety relies on creating a hazy experience. When a bass guitar and a glimmering synth coalesce near the end of "Yesterday"'s hook, they add a warmth to the already soothing vocals that is found throughout the album. The bass, especially, is an unsung hero of Yoncalla. Much will be made of the pristine synth work done to compliment the vocals, but it's the bass on tracks like "Keep It Close to Me" that add depth to the completed work. And, regarding the synths, for good reason -- the opening musical explosion of "Short Truth" should be making its way to a feel-good commercial near you as soon as those who make things like that happen get their hands on this album. "Love is gonna be okay" from the latter song is one of the clearest vocals on the whole album and serves as a mission statement for the gleaming positivity emanating from the album.
Like summer often is, the best moments come at the beginning without one even knowing it. Similarly, Yoncalla begins with its strongest track and the one from which the rest seem to draw their aesthetic. "Barricade (Matter of Fact)" utilizes a gorgeous falsetto that floats over a synth line with great movement and a guitar riff that pops up on occasion to remind us that there's no instrument this band can't make sound like a perfect day. The back-and-forth on the hook is reminiscent of a fight any couple could have when the temperature ratchets up, knowing that all will be fine in the end.
Yoncalla, like summer, is glossy but not perfect. The repetition of what works on the early songs makes the back half seem too much like déjà vu. But as a whole product, its lean 34 minutes promises to soundtrack days full of sun. The synth-pop success of Jessy Lanza's Oh No makes it a proper companion piece to this album in terms of vocal quality and brightness, though the former is more reliant on synths to drive the compositions forward. Nonetheless, Yoncalla is one of the year's strongest debuts right behind the devastating Wriggling by Abi Reimold. Unlike that album, however, Yoncalla is a ray of sunshine warming through a glass window.