Album Review: Um Are – Big Wins

[Earl Boykins; 2021]

The forces of nominative determinism are at it again. Where once these fates guided a man called Thomas Crapper toward a career in sanitary engineering, and put a guy named Doug Bowser in charge of Nintendo of America, they have now installed one Julian Fader as an in-demand producer, studio head, and session musician in Brooklyn, where, over the past decade, he has cultivated quite the impressive CV. His wide range of credits and contributions include the rich indie pop of Frankie Cosmos, the lavish experimentalism of Eartheater, and the caustic noise of White Suns. As a performer, he lays down Talking Heads-style grooves for Ava Luna and is one of the minds behind the bite-size rock duo Coughy. Yet, for all the variation in Fader’s résumé, Big Wins – his first release as Um Are in half a decade – demonstrates a razor-sharp pop acumen and one hell of an ear for hooks.

Fader’s skill shines through most in the subtle modifications he makes to ordinary pop structures. Take “Missing Man” for example. On paper, it appears distressingly simple, containing only an alternating verse and chorus, but Fader turns the verse/chorus relationship inside out so the lyrical refrain of “I see a missing man …. and I don’t wanna talk about it” builds to the verses, rather than the other way around. A strategic key change for the final refrain finishes out the song proper, before it’s reprised and revised in a brief chiptune coda. On the Beach Boyish “Donna”, the shifting time signatures of the chorus make for a fine tune, but Fader takes it to new heights of grandeur after the bridge, when an Omnichord solo plays a rising pattern that leads into a downward key change, as if the song has crested a hill, revealing a breathtaking vista. “Big Blue”, meanwhile, is a toothsome power-pop jam with verses built around a sideways chord progression and a guitar solo that is one of the best you’ll hear in a pop song this year.

Fader expertly and effortlessly pulls off these tricks without calling attention to them, maintaining the sense of irreverence that announces itself with gusto on opener “Smiles”, which starts off with a corny funk rhythm that seems to spoof Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” – synth solo included – before pulling the spiky beat out from underneath and replacing it with a smooth lo-fi hip-hop groove.

Irreverence is ultimately the heart and soul of Big Wins, placing Fader in a tradition alongside iconoclastic acts like Lilys and Ween. The influence of the former can be heard in the languid, jazzy “Peoples Park”, and “Breakaway” is a dead ringer for something that could have been on The Mollusk. To be in such illustrious company is to pull off a precarious balancing act: being goofy but not twee, and visceral but not aggressive. Fader’s bedroom-pop production style turns out to be a perfect means to achieve that feat, delivering his vocals in a breathy half-whisper at the forefront of the mix while the drums punch with purpose from the low-end up through the foggy mid layers. Think Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s trademark insular fuzz as applied to They Might Be Giants’ appreciation for pure songcraft, and you’ll have some idea of the end result.

Big Wins is technically the follow-up to Fader’s 2015 Um Are mini-album Child Prodigy, but it also incorporates and builds on ideas from Coughy’s 2018 cassette Big Hug / Ocean Fruit. That tape, which Fader recorded with Speedy Ortiz’s Andrew Molholt, was a self-imposed challenge to create fully-formed pop songs less than two minutes long, and required Fader and Molholt to condense as many ideas as they could into small spaces. The 10 tracks on Big Wins aren’t as strict on duration, but are similarly dense with hooks, turns, and flourishes; not one of its 30 minutes is wasted. Call it nominative determinism, or call it simply dedication, talent, and precision, Big Wins lives up to its name, and then some.