Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart have worked with Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, and Wilco. On their first album as a duo, they make improvisational art rock with an inquisitive, surrealist bent.
Like an existentialist in a sundress, the Chicago duo Ohmme has a distant, relaxed allure. On their debut album, Parts, Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart let their two guitars gambol as drums nuzzle up to nimble, unpredictable vocals. Their music is improvisational art rock that flings itself high into the atmosphere but lands lightly, like it didn’t just crash down from outer space.
Ohmme have a wholesome origin story: They went to the same high school, a few years apart, and noticed each other’s talents from afar. Cunningham was captivated by Stewart’s voice when she saw her in a high school production of Little Shop of Horrors; Stewart had seen Cunningham play in a local rock band. Deeply embedded in the young Chicago music scene, the pair sang with Chance the Rapper on Coloring Bookand Surf. Stewart co-fronted her high school band with Vic Mensa, while Cunningham sings backing vocals with Wilco on tour. When they formed Ohmme in 2014, it was as an experiment. They mostly improvised in the beginning, and still do in their live shows.
Cunningham and Stewart bring a strange bounce to their music. On the title track, they harmonize on free-associative lyrics like, “We were hot for a minute like two boiled eggs, and at times I want to crush the ceiling in between my legs”; it’s a slipstream shift between reality and surrealism. Like a Carmen Maria Machado short story, their concise, bracing vision of our world is just warped enough to feel accurate. In “Sentient Beings,” they deal with mislaid faith, but they’re so calm about losing their religion that it makes the ordeal even more disorienting. Depending on your tolerance for instability, the lack of solid ground in Ohmme’s landscapes could feel terrifying or thrilling.
If there’s a grounding element in the project, it’s Cunningham and Stewart’s mutual appreciation. Each piece of Ohmme’s sound is flexibly loving of the others—and flexibility is a theme of Parts. They’re into the bendiness of life, the contortions. Lyrics that indulge private thoughts and music that allows the pair to highlight each other’s talents give listening to the record the frisson of eavesdropping. Ohmme’s close harmonies can ascend into bluegrassy exaltation. The improvisational guitars intensify and ease up against each other; sometimes it sounds like they’re poking at one another, trying to tease out a lush, full strum. Percussionist Matt Carroll, a late addition, does astounding work curving around the duo with finesse like Fiona Apple’s collaboration with Charley Drayton on The Idler Wheel.
Parts, for the most part, is mysterious and indirect. This constant elusive smirk could wear on you if you’re not into that type of thing. Ohmme like to raise provocative questions, then fuck off with coy guitars. “There’s a myriad of whys,” they admit in “Liquor Cabinet.” If you would like them to tell you what the answers might be, if you would like them to show their cards, then you have to pay close attention, because it only happens in quick flashes. “Pick me a peach,” they say, and you urgently need to find one. “I want a new icon,” they say, and you’re like, Fuck! I do too! It is really satisfying when Ohmme make demands.
Most of the time, Ohmme linger at the threshold of, and in the spaces in between, feelings: anger, clarity, elation. They’ve gotten close enough to each one to interrogate it with curiosity and sensitivity. Scattering the puzzle pieces, as Cunningham and Stewart do on Parts, has its own function—that’s how you find all the strange little edges. You start to see the insight you can gather when you’re forced to look at each part of the whole.