There's a unique stillness to the Christmas/New Year period in New Zealand - the air is warm, businesses shut and the sun's daily retreat is a lazy, gradual process. Yumi Zouma, whose members have been scattered across the world since their formation, returned home to Christchurch last summer to record Willowbank. The resulting album is a sensory time capsule, as though the band kept summer corked in a vial; it's lush, warm and calming but tantalisingly elusive, forever drawing the listener towards some insolvable mystery.
Willowbank was recorded in Christchurch's Sawtooth Studios, and the increased production quality gives the band's delicate dream pop a striking lucidity. Singer Christie Simpson's vocals are clearer and stronger than on previous releases; she owns Half Hour, an eerie number about death and loneliness, and shines with a swirling falsetto on the gorgeous penultimate track Ostra. The album's instrumentation draws from a similar palette to their debut Yoncalla, but Willowbank is an even more seamless machine that finds the band flirting with dancier tempos and elements of chamber pop and trip-hop.
Structurally, their songs remain firmly left of centre. Guitars often play identical melodies to the vocals and lyrics can often take disarming turns - exemplified midway through the album with the double-punch of Gabriel, a stripped-back tapestry of haunting lyrics and stunning harmonies, and the delicately textured, down-tempo tread of Carnation. Yumi Zouma are masters of call and response lyrics - the soothing pop of December features Greek chorus-style answers to Simpson's lyrics, exercising the same kind of genius behind Barricade (Matter of Fact) from Yoncalla.
The genius of Willowbank lies in its duality. For every lyric that comforts, there's one that confronts; even the poetic title refers to a band member's childhood brush with death. On A Memory, Simpsons sings; "In the silence I claim my place." In the stillness of the New Zealand summer, Yumi Zouma created their best work yet - and it's no doubt one evolution of many to come.
Yumi Zouma, Willowbank
Artist: Yumi Zouma
Verdict: A lush and generous return that's not afraid to flirt with darkness.