Graded on a Curve:
The Umbrellas,
The Umbrellas

Stumbling onto the indie-pop stylings of The Umbrellas could easily lead to assumptions that they reside in Merry Old England, but no; the map to their digs leads west to San Francisco, USA. Flush with chiming and distorted strings, urgent rhythms, sweet harmonies, and alternating guy-gal lead vocals, the band’s full-length debut is out August 6 on limited edition Coke bottle green vinyl, compact disc, and digital download. Dishing a dozen songs in 38 minutes, the album hits all the marks, and is another treat in a long string of delights from the ever-reliable Slumberland label.

The Umbrellas are Morgan Stanley on vocals and guitar, Matt Ferrara on vocals, guitar and keyboards, Keith Frerichs on 12-string acoustic guitar, drums, and vocals, and Nick Oka on bass. Their sole prior release is the “Maritime E.P.,” which came out just a smidge over one year ago on 33 1/3 rpm 7-inch vinyl and cassette.

Three of the four songs on the 7-inch are also featured on the LP, but in distinctively different versions, with the EP recorded in Ferrara’s apartment and the album at Cidra Studios. Additionally, the rhythms heard on the EP were solely sourced from (or at least only credited to) a drum machine. While said apparatus hasn’t exited The Umbrellas’ scene, the sound of an honest-to-goodness drum kit can’t help but deepen the band’s indie-pop bona fides.

While on the subject of the legit, the cassette version of the “Maritime E.P.” offers an extra track, a nifty cover of “Dance” by the ’80s UK outfit Strawberry Switchblade. If you dig that band but don’t know that song, that’s likely because its only recording was a David Jensen radio session in October of ’82. “Dance” did morph into Strawberry Switchblade’s “Since Yesterday,” the opening track and first single from their eponymous debut album in ’84, but the revamping denoted a stylistic move toward synth-pop and new wave.

Contrasting, the original “Dance” is a succinct dose of harmony rich strum pop, with the crispness of The Umbrellas’ version deftly underscoring the band’s knowledge base in genre terms. It delivers a swell finale to the cassette, which, like the 7-inch, is sold out. The five-song download however, can be found on the Discontinuous Innovation Inc. label’s Bandcamp page for one US dollar. A bargain for a buck, it’ll make a fine appetizer for the new album, which documents a rise in worthiness across the board.

Ferrara’s keyboards in opener “Lonely” make an immediate positive impression, lending a welcome neo-’60s touch, but the sheer energy of the tune, strings jangling with abandon, is downright indie pop infectious. Plus, the non-apartment recording scenario secures a large payoff through the ethereality of Stanley’s backing vocal. A stinging, soaring guitar solo on the back end lends further panache.

With “Near You,” Stanley takes the lead for a short sharp slice of indie pop that brings Amelia Fletcher to mind. Good thoughts. And the studio setting figures prominently here as well, as Stanley’s multi-tracked backing vocals really accentuate the comparison. But the Ferrara-sung “Autumn” reasserts the ’60s influence with authority; the bio mentions the Paisley Underground (there’s definitely a neo-psych flavor), but to my ear the guitars hang on the fringes of shoegaze.

Maybe it’s the deep edge of Ferrara’s voice, but the psych edge of “Autumn” reminds me a bit of Beat Happening’s collab with Screaming Trees, though the song ultimately travels down a pop path with Stanley’s exquisite harmonies as a guide. She steps back up front for album highlight “Happy,” with the results landing squarely in the International Pop Underground zone, circa the mid-’90s.

This may not read as a huge achievement, but bands getting this sound right this deep into century 21 is something of a rarity (as many continue to try). This skill is further exemplified during “She Buys Herself Flowers” and “Galine” (both Stanley-sung), but the shared-vocal acoustic strummer “It’s True” showcases range, and with a bit of melodica as the capper. Overall, “It’s True” sounds a little like an acoustic demo cut by The Vaselines as a birthday present for Alan McGee.

When it’s Ferrara singing in “Pictures” and “Never Available,” the impact of Belle & Sebastian is detectable, but with variants, like the heft of the bassline in the latter cut. “Summer” dips into the ’60s once more with another shared vocal number blending neo-psych and retro-pop with a Spector beat, while those keyboards return for the prime indie pop of “City Song.” Finale “A.M.” slows down and leans toward dream-pop but is increasingly study as it draws to a close.

Too often, bands lose their mojo when they stop recording at home, getting slicked out or tentative in a pro situation. Thankfully, The Umbrellas have just become more vivid, precise and assured, with quality songs and vital edge sealing the deal.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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