Monday, December 14, 2009

Way of the Beat

Every Hour [EP]
Ukemi

Towards the bottom of the detailed mix for the waltz "Lover's Pride," a female computer voice complains, "I'm not likely to be impressed by the same thing over and over again." It sounds familiar, like the parser from one of those point-and-click adventure games popular on the PC in the early 90's. It could be a comment on the topic of the song, but it could also serve as a summary of Ukemi's approach on each of these six tracks.

The quintet uses folk-rock instrumentation -- acoustic guitar, upright bass, violin, piano, and drums -- but they pack a wallop. Their potency isn't due to dramatic volume shifts or flamboyant parts from any of the players, but rather the lovely arrangements. Each splash cymbal hit to be heard here is chosen with purpose. Ukemi's signature is an ability to collectively pirouette from nervous, twitchy rhythms in the verses of their songs to a more soothing standard rock ballad beat when the choruses arrive. "Halfway" is the best example. The release that the anthemic chorus brings is built up by the unsettled feel of the main verse riff, led by a darting bassline. When the bass and drums stop playing against the beat and settle in for the chorus, John Jung's narrator seems to have found soaring peace, if but for a moment.

The use of tension and release in this music -- and the way that the more subtle elements of the production, like the many overlaying harmonies in the chorus sections and the additional percussion employed during many of the more polyrhythmic bits -- makes Every Hour perhaps the preeminent headphones listen among local releases I've sampled this year. Even in the big melodic passages there's a duality in the calm, cool notes of Julie Wang's violin and Jung's fragile, wavering vocals. There's also a larger structure at work in the track order. The way the unresolving "Every Hour" bridges directly into the beat-happy "Ferris Wheel" seems particularly suite-like.

With its lean rhythm sound, detailed mix, and frank, sometimes unsettling lyrics, Every Hour stands out even among Austin's cluttered field for its originality and vitality. One of the best of 2009, and not a moment too soon.

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