Yumi Zouma Find Momentum on Present Tense
New Zealand quartet play with a wider sonic palette on their latestMusic Reviews Yumi Zouma
It seems safe to say there will always be an audience for lovelorn songs with a wistful, dreamy air. That’s good news for Yumi Zouma: The New Zealand-ish quartet have been honing that sound since first getting together in 2014. The group take a more expansive approach on their latest, Present Tense. And like pretty much every album that has come out over the past year, Yumi Zouma’s new LP comes with a pandemic-related twist.
The band had released a previous album, Truth or Consequences, on the same day in 2020 that the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic. They managed to squeeze in one live performance the day before that, on March 12, 2020, in Washington, D.C., before having to cancel the rest of their North American tour and head back to their respective homes in Wellington and Christchurch, New Zealand; and London and New York. That wouldn’t seem like much of a problem on the face of it: Yumi Zouma were already accustomed to working remotely. Though the original three members of the group had shared a house in Christchurch, they didn’t start collaborating on music until they had scattered, and their early songs came together through the magic of file sharing.
This time, though, the upheaval of having to pivot from starting what was supposed to be an extended stretch together on tour to essentially high-tailing it home proved disorienting enough that the musicians had a hard time finding their feet for a while. In the end, they fell back on that greatest of motivators: a deadline. Determined to finish making a new album by last fall, the band recaptured a sense of momentum that carries into the 10 tracks on Present Tense.
Yumi Zouma play with a wider musical palette on these songs, which reach beyond the synth-pop sensibility that often characterized their earlier work. These songs are lusher, but in a low-key way: In addition to synths and keyboards, the band build atmosphere with guitar textures and layers of vocals, augmented here and there by saxophone, strings and woodwinds. When combined with singer Christie Simpson’s wispy, murmuring vocals, the effect is hypnotic on “Mona Lisa.” She sings almost in a whisper on the verses, but the deceptively powerful melody blends with guitars and a subtle beat to send the whole song burbling along.
Elsewhere, “Razorblade” is spare, with Simpson and Josh Burgess harmonizing softly over a bed of keyboards and a simple beat. They build a sense of tension that almost escapes notice until a wave of overdriven guitars comes washing through the last quarter of the song like it’s breaking through a dam. Simpson lets her voice ring out on “In the Eyes of Our Love,” a fast-paced song with a bouncy beat, and sings in clear, unhurried tones on “Where the Light Used to Lay,” where she calmly describes some poor sap as “just a figment of the plans that I never had.”
If there’s a mission statement on Present Tense, though, it comes on opener “Give It Hell.” Over a sleek bassline and metronomic beat, Simpson advocates perseverance in the face of adversity. Huddled backstage on that night in 2020 before they went out to play that one show, somebody said, “Let’s give it hell tonight,” according to Burgess. Turns out that same exhortation has applied to every night since as the band, and the rest of us, fight to stay focused on the here and now.