Yumi Zouma – Willowbank
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After they got off the road in support of their debut album, Yoncalla, the New Zealand quartet Yumi Zouma headed home to recuperate and start work on another album. The home cooking and familiar spaces led the band to make something much more intimate and 2017's Willowbank is less of a record for sunny day frolics and more of one for a cuddle and a restorative stroll through dusky streets. With songs that never work up a sweat and melodies that caress jangled nerves, the band has crafted chillout music of the best kind. It's relaxing and warm, but never drowsy or boring. Christie Simpson's vocals have grown more assertive and strong, but she still sings with the tune instead of leaping out in front. The band holds back too, mixing clouds of synths with jangling guitars, bubbly bass, and gently propulsive drums. It's a homey, bedroom-made spin on the electropop of their debut, which was already a low-impact version of the sound that took over radio waves in the mid-2010s. It's like New Order were college kids who grew up on a tiny verdant island, or Chvrches cut all the drama out of their sound. Despite any cute comparisons like that, Yumi Zouma have their own thing going on here, and when they put 100% effort into a track, it sounds like a rainy-day hit. Check the super-catchy and sweet "Persephone" or the loping "Us, Together," which matches stripped-down, bass-heavy verses with lush melancholy choruses, for proof of their pop bona fides. The jittery "In Blue" is another gentle track that would fit almost any playlist, while "A Memory" pulses like a classic Everything But the Girl club track. When Yumi Zouma dial it all the way down, it's a little less immediate, but songs like the acoustic guitar ballad "Gabriel" show they don't need beats or electronics to craft memorable moments. The only time they stumble is when they get a little heavy, like on "Half Hour," where some of the musical choices overpower Simpson's tender vocals. It's a minor quibble that's easy to overlook, and it doesn't make the album any less enjoyable overall. It's another unassuming pleasure from a sneaky-good band, with just enough of a twist to make it a fine follow-up to Yoncalla.