If done right, a shoegaze song will have you feel like you’re drowning and flying at the same time. UJU, a young band from the Philippine South, have hit on the correct balance and sleight-of-hand to pull this off, in the process making some of the most tender, moving dream pop this side of Southeast Asia.
Formed in 2018, the four-piece is led by Leeju Jung (who prefers to go by Judy) on vocals and guitars. A transplant from Seoul, Judy came to the archipelago when she was four and has since grown up Pinoy. Her bandmates and UJU’s founding members are Ken Jo on bass, David Chu on lead guitars and Diosem A. Dagaas on drums.
UJU means “outer space” in Korean, and the band do take to heart the genre’s conventions of reverb-drenched singing, shimmering atmospherics, and melodic songcraft built on textured guitars. But it’s how they’ve set their swooning songs against a warm tropical backdrop that sets them apart from other guitar geeks looking down at their pedalboards.
It probably has to do with their home base Dumaguete. 922 nautical miles south of Manila, it’s a big provincial town on Negros Island that four universities call home. The student population swells during peak academic season and the youth of the Visayas and Mindanao regions fill the usually somnolent seaside streets, mixing with the South’s artists, scholars, hipsters and literati.
On debut album ‘Dream Of Better Days’, you can hear the notes UJU took from Texas standouts Explosions In The Sky and Australia’s sleepmakeswaves, melding their aesthetic on tracks like the ‘Let’s Watch TV’ and ‘I Watch You Go.’ Both are slices of richly textured post-rock intersecting with vintage dream pop, student life boredom set to sunshine-soaked guitars.
UJU have said that their songs usually start out as five- to eight-minute instrumentals. They try to nail the emotion first, then add a narrative with lyrics, before cutting it all down to a radio-friendly run time. It’s a process that’s served them well on the 10 tracks of this generally impressive debut record, but there are moments when it falters.
Take ‘Ghost Story’, where some of the album’s overall shine loses its lustre due to rookie slips in tonal execution. Attempts at experimenting with more abstraction are sometimes better left on the cutting room floor than hidden behind layers of reverb and overdubs – cleverly engineered though they may be. Ditto on ‘Can We Stay Like This Forever’, a spoken-word track that aims for Mazzy Star but lands in Hallmark-cheese. It is, it must be said, a forgivable stumble for a shoegaze outfit still trying to find its creative footing.
UJU do shine on the tracks when they relax and stick to their home base of shoegaze while venturing out to sample from folk, indie rock, and even some K-pop. ‘Daydream’ is an easy favourite. Judy has her shining moment here, delivering lilting pop hooks in lock-step with the soaring guitars and drums. Her voice floats above the instruments, cajoling and requesting, making the track ephemeral and magnetic. It conjures the charms of their bucolic, seaside city under a warming noon sun or a romantic, moon-lit night.
Likewise, ‘Summer’, the single of this LP, is still its crowning glory, crafted from tape emulation, analog delays, and huge reverb. It sounds like both petition and declaration to a nostalgic memory you’ve almost forgotten, but aren’t quite ready to free from your mental library. The song almost (but not quite) peaks, then retreats just before that last step to the top. Such maturity and delicious instinct in song dynamics for a debuting band are rare and precious.
Despite rookie shortcomings and minor compositional lapses, UJU’s debut album is an impressive tilt-a-whirl that you can put on for a cinematic spin in your bedroom.
- Release date: January 29
- Record label: Melt Records