Guitarist and singer Lauren Larson from Austin, Texas, power trio* Ume is one of my favourite contemporary rock guitarists. Creative rather than virtuosic, her style brings together wiry single-note riffs and octave chords and dyads in the middle of the fretboard, occasionally using delay to add rhythmic interest without, Edge-style, making it the entire basis of her sound. You might think that a three-piece eschewing heavily distorted power chords in the lowest register of the guitar would sound a little skeletal, but Larson fills up a lot of space all by herself and when playing with the brakes off, the band sound massive.
East of Hercules, the thunderous opening track of the band’s debut 2009 EP Sunshower, has one of the most immediate of Larson’s serrated-edge Fender riffs, underpinned by her husband Eric Larson’s light-footed distorted bass. Original drummer Jeff Barrera is brick-wall solid in support, using toms to build tension in the verses and smashing his cymbals to send the song through the roof at the climax. The song’s structure, a variation on the well-worn quiet-loud-quiet-loud dynamic of nineties-influenced rock, may not be the most surprising, but it works brilliantly, with the band alternately surging forward and pulling back. Vocals tend to be sunk low in the mix on Ume’s early work, certainly on the heavier tracks, but, MBV-style, snippets of melody and lyric insinuate themselves over time, so East of Hercules rewards repeat listening, as do the other songs on Sunshower.
I felt on hearing Ume’s early work that they were going to get a substantial audience. It’s never really happened for them. It may seem reductive to suggest that only one band can pursue a similar sound at the same time and have success with it, but it does feel like The Joy Formidable (who released their debut EP in the same year that Ume put theirs out), who share a power-trio sound with Ume and whose singer Ritzy Bryan has a similar vocal tone and range to Larson, now occupy the only space that mainstream indie rock has for a band doing this kind of stuff. Which I guess makes sense since The Joy Formidable’s mixes tend to place more emphasis on Bryan’s voice than Ume’s put on Larson’s, and tracks like Whirring and Abacus show a willingness and a talent for playing to the back row of an arena that Ume don’t quite share, but it’s still a shame. I know which band I’d rather see in a small club.
Ume have become a little more refined over the last decade, with 2018’s Other Nature employing a tight, dry sound, a little like Radiohead around the time of In Rainbows, and featuring fewer head-banging moments. All their releases are worth checking out, though. Sunshower’s standout East of Hercules is a great place to start, and while you’re there check out The Conductor and Pendulum, too.
*They have expanded more recently into a live four-piece, with either an extra guitar or keyboard player. As far as I can tell, though, the core of the band remains Lauren Larson, Eric Larson and current drummer Aaron Perez.