While I was a little sorry to see some of the rougher edges of Ume’s debut get sanded down for their sophomore album, Phantoms, in retrospect it was the best move they could have made. Shaking off Urgent Sea’s Sonic Youth worship allowed the band to come fully into its own and blossom into the rock & roll powerhouse it was always meant to be. Balancing crushing riffs with frontwoman Lauren Larsen’s heavenly vocals, Ume managed to create one of 2011’s most endearing hard rock records.
Monuments picks up where Phantoms left off. Larsens Lauren and Eric continue to seek the outer edges of their aesthetic territory, and Monuments contains some of the heaviest and most fragile moments of the band’s career. And it’s the heavy ones that really shine. “Chase It Down” and “Oh Fate” are obvious standouts, building to raucous conclusions that find Larsen matching the fury of her instrument with an equally raw and ragged scream. Next to such a hurricane of raw emotion, gentler offerings like “Barophobia” and “Within My Bones” feel a little anemic, lacking the lyrical chops and dynamism to compensate for their lack of volume.
In fact, the lyrics on Monuments in general continue to tread water. Larsen describes the creation of the album as an unusually emotional process, stating that some of the songs were written in response to the loss of a longtime friend. But while she and her bandmates are great about projecting that intensity of feeling through their performance, the words themselves traffic a little too heavily in generality to truly take root in the heart.
Where Ume really distinguish themselves is in their songs’ construction. I’m continually astonished by how subtly and unexpectedly the trio is able to manipulate the trajectory of a three-minute rock song without scuffing the brilliant sheen off its pop veneer. The way that “Gleam” morphs textures so seamlessly is remarkable to behold, beginning with an imbalanced duet between a clean electric lead and some palm-muted plucking, and progressing into a sweeping verse undergirded by a spectral vocal wash; the whole thing contracts on a dime to a crisp bridge and then snaps back bigger than ever.
Monuments’ album cover sports a line of tweens in purple tutus preparing to take a bow toward an alien, storm-riddled sky. It’s sort of a cheesy image, the kind of thing someone with a little training in Photoshop could probably throw together during a lunch break. Yet, this juxtaposition of “girlish” imagery with more traditionally metal iconography is a perfect visual mission statement for the band. Like Phantoms, which came wallpapered in hot pink skulls like a Lisa Frank folder designed for Hot Topic, this record wears its juxtapositions out in the open like a challenge. And with Ume’s sweet, soft melodies mixed so gracefully with their bone-crushing riffs, any notion of contradiction between the two are dispelled.