Usonia refresh their sound and spirits

Here we glow again
Eric Elvendahl

Usonia's southeast Minneapolis rehearsal space is crowded with guitars, drums, keyboards — the typical devices of a hard-working rock band. But there's also a convivial confidence filling the room as the group gathers on an icy winter night to discuss the shimmering new batch of songs in the making for the past two years.

"Thematically, we really gravitated toward what we know our strengths are, and really tried to exploit them — tried to stretch them as far as we could go," says Usonia singer/guitarist Ross Vander Werf. "But I don't think all our records are going to sound like this, either. This is one tree we're crawling up right now in a forest of different ones."

Vander Werf is describing What's Fresh, a collection of ebullient, synth-laden pop songs recorded at Another Recording Company in Omaha, Nebraska, last summer. The record is a stylistic shift from the group's self-titled debut, a guitar-driven indie-rock album from 2010. In the years since, the original trio of Vander Werf, guitarist Zack Carroll, and bassist George Hadfield has swelled to officially include drummer Mark Schwandt, who played with Carroll in now-defunct White Light Riot, and synth player Garrett Neal.

"The thing is, we kind of snuck in a bit of synth on our first record, and those were the songs that everyone seemed to gravitate towards," Carroll says of their sonic evolution. "We went into that first album not planning on having any [synths], but when those songs got that type of reception, we were like, 'Maybe we should think about adding that element to our sound going forward.'"

Making What's Fresh was an enjoyable, Kickstarter-funded experience that the guys playfully refer to as a "working vacation." But the group spent long, 10-hour days in the studio with producer Brandon Darner of the Envy Corps and engineer Micah Natera, who encouraged the band to try analog recording while also playing nearly all the songs live.

"We did our first record in a way where we recorded the drum tracks first, then the bass, then we did guitars ... and that sounded okay, but it was a little sterile," reflects Vander Werf. "And Brandon really brought out this confidence in us that we could try anything together."

The blissful, breezy pop melodies of "Please" and "Eastern Melodies" echo the U.K. electro-pop sensation Metronomy, a comparison that Usonia warmly welcome. They listened to plenty of Metronomy during recording, along with Michael Jackson's Off the Wall and Stevie Wonder. Usonia even caught Metronomy's Entry show in April. "It's being familiar without being redundant," Schwandt says. "We want to showcase our influences without outright mimicking them."

The new songs have a lighthearted air and a summery spirit — a feeling enhanced by the serene image of California palm trees on the album's cover. But releasing the record in the dead of winter seems like a bit of a cruel contradiction, something that the band thought about, but ultimately it "just ended up being a date on the calendar."

But no matter how cold it is on the night of the release show, the overriding vibe of the songs is decidedly warm and bright; the band has affectionately taken to calling those songs "vacation music." Vander Werf explains, "If you ever make the five-hour drive from Vegas to L.A. in the middle of the night, this album is your soundtrack."

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