Album Review: Mt. Umbra — ‘Not Great’

You can find the umbra of anything by searching for the innermost, and darkest, part of its shadow. There’s secrets to be found there, but only if you can bring them back out into the light, half-busted and stained as they may be.

Mt. Umbra is the self-described “one woman show” built by Iowa City-based musician Amanda Crosby. (Crosby also plays with the Iowa City band Younger.) Her newest release, Not Great, is a four-song EP made up of secrets like those and the questions that ride right along with them.

The songs on Not Great operate as cycles, cresting and falling on Crosby’s melodic vocal wanderings. There’s a lot of sonic space on these tracks, audible landscapes crafted out of lightly strummed guitars, stray piano keys and swelling bass lines.

“Days” is a sparse yet churning protopunk meditation, complete with a sincere chorus: “If we make it out alive/I won’t cancel my plans” Crosby sings, pointing toward some unknowable future with a promise. But the off-time-but-right-on vocal stacks remind us that the days just keep coming.

“Joshua Tree” is a postcard full of haunting, whirling melodies written to relationships that have deserted her. There’s a highway longing that permeates the lyrics, which start with a question:

Who do you think I’ve become? / Sending a note as you drive / Alone through the desert / To see your mother
For no real reason / You used to be a friend.

“Mercy” is held together by fuzzy guitars and ethereal drones, a wandering inland shanty made all the more eerie by Crosby’s cryptic lyrics. The song seems always to be descending, the sonic counterpoint to her all-encompassing apology: “I’m sorry I didn’t see / I’m sorry I didn’t know / You were ready to go / You wanted to go.”

“Phone” captures in small allegory the reality of living virtually for months on end. “I watched my hair go from brown to blonde to gray / What else can I say?” Crosby asks. By the end, her repetition of the line, “I guess I am doing fine” becomes as much a question as a mantra. It’s a pandemic song, straight up, but it begins to question what the words “not great” meant before all of this, and what they will come to mean next.

Mt. Umbra’s Not Great is at once both wandering and concise, a thumb-tacked Polaroid in a Portrait Mode age. Throughout, Crosby’s vocal stacks hold the four searching tracks together. In short, Not Great is pure pandemic pop music: a circuitous cycle formed from a chorus of one’s own voice.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 293.

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