What a treacherous thing, maturity. Just admit it: Any time you read a review praising an artist’s newfound “maturity,” something inside you sinks just a little. Whatever it denotes in its specific instance — greater melodic control, an exploration of deeper themes, a sense of restraint that comes with experience — the subtext is always the same: This band’s been housetrained. It may herald a more thoughtful, carefully sculpted, and technically proficient output, but often at the expense of some primal savagery, some atavistic hunger that lent an undeniable necessity to those first stumbling baby steps taken by the fledgling artist.
Thus, it is with some trepidation that I declare Phantoms a mature Ume record. In almost every sense, this Austin three-piece (centered around husband-and-wife duo Lauren Langner and Eric Larson) is growing up. The songs are tighter, the melodic elements are more carefully balanced against the band’s leaden heaviness, the production is sleeker (although without castrating Langner Larson’s pyrotechnic guitar work), and, perhaps most importantly, the group’s unique voice is coming more to the forefront. Those handy comparisons to Sonic Youth and Blonde Redhead just aren’t as appropriate as they used to be. Ume are now a full-on, balls-out rock ’n’ roll band, albeit one whose roots are firmly planted in the soil of the American underground in the late 80s/early 90s.
Phantoms continues the progression they began with the Sunshower EP in 2009. You won’t find a hint of bassist Eric Larson’s (who’s only, like, two letters away from being this guy) Thurston Moore drawl on any of these 10 tracks. Also pleasantly absent are the terrible, terrible puns that marred their 2005 debut (Ume - Urgent Sea. Get it? Do you get it? You get it, right?). The sack of jagged edges and rusty wiring that constituted their debut has been displaced by a striking beauty that somehow manages to peacefully coexist — nay, to actually enhance — the record’s heaviness. The prime example is probably the album’s lead single, “Captive,” in which Langner Larson’s voice is layered into a wall of “oohs” and “aahs” coruscating over the ringing strains of her guitar. The sheer gaudy brightness of it reminds me of the more muscular tracks off of Flourescence, but with a power and dynamism that Asobi Seksu lack.
The dynamism is what’s really key to keeping this set engaging. The songs dart in unexpected directions in their minute revolutions from verse to chorus. “Pretend Again” opens with slow, pendulous guitar figure undergirding Langner Larsen’s hazy, almost shoegazy vocals before concentrating into increasingly sharper riffs, propelled by Jeff Barrera’s galloping drum beat. Ume pack a lot of movement into three to four minutes, but the compositions never feel cluttered or jarring. Even the most pedal-to-the-metal offering on the album, “Run Wild,” finds ways to mix up the tempo and the textures of the song, even throwing a little piano into the background for kicks.
So Phantoms is unquestionably a “mature” album, a snapshot of a developing act coming into its own sound. With that declaration, of course, comes just a moment of mourning for all those other potential bands that Ume could have grown into. I miss some of the more slipshod qualities of their debut. Although Langner Larson’s tuneless rasp on Urgent Sea could be wearisome at times, there was a cracked, desperate quality to it — like every vocal track was laid down on the 80th take of the day, after her throat was ripped to ribbons — that was satisfying in a wholly different way. Still, it’s hard to regret the absence of the band’s more discordant elements when nearly every song on Phantoms is so damn entertaining.