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Ohmme - Fantasize Your Ghost Music Album Reviews

The Chicago duo experiments with how many wayward impulses fit inside conventional pop structures on their expansive and thrilling second album. 

“I want to tell you quietly, but I’m afraid you won’t hear it,” sing the members of Chicago duo Ohmme in the first verse of “Spell It Out,” braiding their voices tightly together, as they almost always do. The song’s narrator is trying to get through to a thickheaded partner who won’t shoulder their fair share of domestic labor, and the hints she’s dropping aren’t working. Singer-guitarists Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham make the tension audible in cyclical guitar figures, and a pensive string section hovers over the proceedings like a summer rain cloud that may or may not burst. When it opens up, the downpour is gentle. The strings become sweeping and romantic, and the narrator finally spells it out: “What ever happened to you wanting to be there?” The dishes are only the beginning of the problem, it’s clear. Fantasize Your Ghost, Ohmme’s second album, tells you things quietly. Like the obtuse partner of “Spell It Out,” you’d do well to listen closely.
Cunningham and Stewart formed Ohmme in 2014, emerging from Chicago’s fertile scene for left-field improvised music. (Cunningham works for the company that produces Pitchfork Festival.) Though their roots are in the avant-garde, they have connections in many of Chicago’s less foreboding musical corners: they’ve lent backing vocals to Chance the Rapper and string arrangements to Whitney, played in bands with Jeff Tweedy and Vic Mensa. Their 2017 self-titled EP, and 2018 debut album Parts, established them as a virtuosic and wildly inventive indie rock band, pursuing their experimental inclinations across bright and punchy songs, with noise freakouts and placid vocal harmonies sharing equal space. The two songwriters operated as if one, sharing nearly every lyric and lending steady accompaniment to each other’s improvisatory guitar excursions.

Even at its most exuberant, Parts felt sealed off from the outside world, mirroring the tight quarters of its cover photo. Fantasize Your Ghost is more spacious, and the duo experiments with how many cock-eyed experimental impulses can fit inside a conventional pop song. “The Limit” picks up the thread Dirty Projectors left hanging after Bitte Orca and Swing Lo Magellan, fooling you into believing that melodies of dizzying baroque complexity are actually sugary singalong hooks. The lurching riff and brain-melting feedback of “Selling Candy” come across as celebratory rather than confrontational, thanks to the light touch of drummer Matt Carroll and the sly humor of Cunningham and Stewart’s lyrics, which reminisce on childhoods spent wandering a city filled with hot dog vendors and streets imagined as hot lava.

For all the liberating chaos of their guitar playing, Ohmme have always had an affinity for quiet and an improvisers’ commitment to listening and responding to each other. (Few bands whose genre tags might include the word “noise” could pull off a Tiny Desk Concert; Ohmme’s is a marvel.) The back half of Fantasize Your Ghost gives extended space to the band’s meditative side. “3 2 4 3” is restrained and hypnotic, with Carroll channelling Jaki Liebezeit’s trance-funk groove and Cunningham and Stewart repeating an elliptical mantra: “Different today, but I’m the same.” Ohmme are a powerhouse live band, and it’s easy to imagine “3 2 4 3” evolving into a sprawling Can-style jam with multiple fiery peaks whenever they’re able to take this material on the road. For now, the climax is more subdued: a stab of strings and a wordless vocal harmony, stretching forever as the band glides on.

Fantasize Your Ghost ends with a juxtaposition. First, “Sturgeon Moon,” the group’s most dissonant piece of music by far, a scorched and metallic landscape that sounds like it was improvised from scratch, recalling early Sonic Youth at their most apocalyptic. Then “After All,” a magnificent pop song with the easy melodic elegance of a Brill Building gem, whose lyrics acknowledge the surprising about-face with a wink: “After all the commotion/After all, I need to plant my rose.” Cunningham and Stewart’s vocal blend is at its richest and sweetest, a single glowing sound that never loses their individual variances of inflection and pitch. They are like instruments in a string quartet, an effect heightened by the appearance of an actual string quartet, swooping in to take over for them in the third verse. Stewart and Cunningham seem capable of almost anything, a surplus of ability extending in so many directions that the music might feel scattershot if not for this grounding factor. No matter the surroundings, it always comes back to those two voices, singing together.

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