What do you do when the home you share with your bandmates is destroyed in an earthquake? For Yumi Zouma, the answer was to start afresh individually, with the band separating across the world following the Christchurch disaster. The appeal of making music together remained, and the four-piece collaborated via file-swapping to create a handful of EPs. But debut album Yoncalla sees the band reunited physically, making the kind of reverb-heavy, nostalgic dream-pop that might once have been labelled chillwave.
Lightly jangling guitars, soft vocals, drum machines, melancholy synth melodies: in many ways, Yoncalla is the archetype of a chillwave album. The influence of cult Balearic pop duo Air France lingers heavily (no surprise, given they’ve previously covered them) but there’s shades of Saint Etienne, Wild Nothing and Washed Out across its ten tracks. It’s fluffy, tropical-leaning ambient pop, which holds no surprises or drama. This is Yoncalla’s best asset: it exists as a perfect mood piece. It’s evocative of clear blue skies and sandy beaches; of cool breezes and days spent in parks; of idyllic endless summers.
But it’s also Yoncalla’s biggest weakness. It would be unfair to say merely floats along – it gathers pace as it proceeds, with penultimate track ‘Hemisphere’ feeling like a climax with its buzzing synths and disco groove. But Yoncalla suffers from a slight lack of personality. It’s not that the songs are unmemorable – tracks like ‘Short Truth’ and ‘Keep It Close To Me’ have shimmering pop choruses. And there’s plenty of variation, from the strobe-lit chug of ‘Remember You At All’ to the Fleetwood Mac textures of ‘Yesterday’ and rigid grooves of ‘Text From Sweden.’ But by being such a perfectly-formed genre exercise, it suffers by virtue of its comfortable familiarity. Of course, to criticise Yoncalla for being a little bland is like criticising food for being too tasty: it’s completely missing the point. If it’s aural wallpaper, then it’s the best kind: that tranquil familiarity is what makes it feel relieving and welcoming. Or to put it another way: this is a really good album not just despite its flaws, but because of its flaws.
There’s a theory that nostalgia is most warmly received when it’s for that we can only just remember – not the things we remember clearly, but the experiences we can only partly relive in memory, the ones we want to capture and prolong. This rings true for Yumi Zouma, in that they’re reminiscent of many different acts, yet there’s nobody else who they sound quite like enough to reduce to imitation or influence. That intangibility of nostalgia is what makes Yoncalla such a pleasure to listen to – there’s a comfort in their recycling of yesteryear styles that goes beyond recreation of the past. When the beat drops out of ‘Hemisphere’ to the line ‘I think it’s all a memory to you,’ it feels like Yumi Zouma wouldn’t have it any other way.