Perhaps you’ve heard something about an impending vibe shift? For Yumi Zouma, the premise presents an existential threat. For the better part of a decade, the geographically stratified, Christchurch-founded indie-pop band has been honing in on a very specific aesthetic, one centered on wistful vocals, chilled-out beats, and faded guitars and keys. Their music is emblematic of many 2010s trends but in another sense is timeless: dreamy, wispy Balearic pop, lighter than air yet heavy with feeling. It is the fizz bubbling in your seltzer, the mist hanging over the sea, the longing ache lingering at the edges of memory. It is, in the parlance of their formative era, a big mood.
Present Tense is their fourth album and their second for Polyvinyl after helping to define the ethos of former label home Cascine. It functions as a sort of mulligan for the band after their prior LP, 2020’s Truth Or Consequences, was released on the same day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, cutting short their first full-blown North American tour after only one show. A world stuck at home might not seem like much of a deterrent for a group whose members are spread across four cities in three continents, whose music has always appealed to introverts and thrived within the realm of boutique music blogs. But this new album suggests Yumi Zouma have grander ambitions. Present Tense sounds like their stab at broader recognition beyond the readership of Gorilla Vs. Bear, and it just might achieve that objective. It’s the best thing they’ve ever released.
For as long as Yumi Zouma have been zeroing in on their signature vibe, they’ve also been building out a more robust sound. That process of tinkering and refining reached an impasse on Truth Or Consequence. It was their brightest, cleanest, most immediate album to date, and when it hit, it hit. But for all its immaculate sparkle, it lacked a certain spark. Without a whole album’s worth of great songs to prop up all that gorgeous listless dreariness, Truth Or Consequence could start to feel like background music fit for Brooklyn artist lofts and high-end department stores alike. The result was an album of flimsy, fleeting pleasures, easy to enjoy but hard to love — the same problem that had always befallen Yumi Zouma full-lengths, now transposed to gleaming hi-fi.
Present Tense is far more engaging from the jump. Live drumming by Olivia Campion factors into every track, lending a new sense of force and purpose to the songs. The arrangements are lush and brimming with warmth. That’s partially thanks to a slew of contributions from guest players: the late-breaking flash of saxophone on “Mona Lisa,” the subtle staccato brass undergirding “Honestly, It’s Fine,” the massive swell of fuzzed-out guitar and orchestral strings that carries “Razorblade” to the horizon line. “In The Eyes Of Our Love” is an all-out rock song, faster and harder-hitting than we’ve ever heard Yumi Zouma. Not that anyone would confuse this crew with DRI, but there’s more depth and power and unbound emotion in their music now, all without compromising the sighing melancholy that has always defined their music.
Although the change has been slow and deliberate over the course of their whole discography, the way everything comes into focus here is startling, like a shift from black and white to color. Yumi Zouma’s music has always been pretty, but these songs overflow with beauty, from the gliding piano-pop orchestration of opener “Give It Hell” to the guitar-streaked minor-key disco thump of closer “Astral Projection.” The difference between those tracks speaks to the wide variety of accents and textures the band has woven into its sound. At times on Present Tense they resemble a long list of artists that blur the edges between pop and indie rock — Alvvays, Phoenix, Belle And Sebastian, Haim, Wet, the xx, and so on — but mostly they sound like a more fully realized Yumi Zouma, a band unlocking new abilities and becoming a better version of themselves.
The elevated songcraft shines a brighter spotlight on the group’s lyrics, too. Or maybe it’s just that Christie Simpson has developed into a deeply expressive singer, able to convey nuanced personality while hardly ever raising her voice. The delicate touch remains even on those rare occasions when her voice surges with heartbroken passion. “But darling, you don’t ever mean what you say!” she exclaims as “Mona Lisa” spills over into its climax. On the tender R&B bridge of “If I Had The Heart For Chasing,” she laments, “Not just another face/ Want you to say my name, babe.” Sometimes Simpson openly wears her regret, as when she and Josh Burgess cease trading lines to mutually declare, “I’m still haunted by you/ You never said, ‘I’m sorry.'” Other times, you can sense the raging storm beneath her prim, proper exterior: “It’s not a metaphor/ Want you to see how I bleed.”
It’s no coincidence that they decided to call this album Present Tense. Yumi Zouma once sounded lost in a memory, adrift on a feeling. Now their music feels alive and in-the-moment, yet still possessed by the same gentle yearning. A lot of artists have attempted this kind of evolution and lost themselves along the way. Present Tense is proof you can morph and mature without killing your vibe.
Present Tense is out 3/18 on Polyvinyl.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Rosalía’s MOTOMAMI
• Charli XCX’s Crash
• Sonic Youth’s plucked-from-the-archives In/Out/In
• The first of four seasonal Weezer albums, Spring
• Midlake’s FOR THE SAKE OF BETHEL WOODS
• Colin Hay’s Now And The Evermore
• Hot Water Music’s Feel The Void
• Cypress Hill’s Back In Black
• Blanck Mass’ Ted K soundtrack
• Dark Funeral’s We Are The Apocalypse
• Stabbing Westward’s Chasing Ghosts
• PLOSIVS’ self-titled LP
• Mattiel’s Georgia Gothic
• Son House’s Forever On My Mind
• Randall King’s Shot Glass
• Brad Mehldau’s Jacob’s Latter
• Feeder’s Torpedo
• Sugar World’s Lost And Found
• Blue States’ World Contact Day
• Keith Richards’ Main Offender (30th Anniversary Edition)
• Erupt’s Left To Rot EP
• Hana Vu’s Parking Lot EP