I first discovered the strange, quirky pop music of Umberto, the alter ego of Ann Arbor singer-songwriter Gina Pensiero, about a year ago when I was cruising for free local downloads on the myspace.com music site. I snatched two of Pensiero's tunes, "Yellow Cardigan" and "For a Lad Who Is Glad," and popped both into my iPod. The former is an acoustic nursery-rhyme ode to a favorite piece of clothing and the latter a low-tech punk channeling of Bertolt Brecht, through Pensiero's semi-out-of-tune double-tracked voice. I wasn't sure where Umberto was coming from or who she was, but the snappy, out-there hooks made me want to sing along.

The two free tunes carried me over until I picked up her CD There, a Somewhere Lies a few months ago. With its charming handmade cover and home-burned disc, it was even more out there, a sort of rock-opera concept record about being sad and lonely in the city of London. Its foundation is a voice that, melodic and in dangerously sad minor keys, slips back and forth between speaking and singing, all the while double and triple tracked in jarring harmony. Umberto's vocals lay the groundwork for layers of acoustic guitar, banjo, out-of-tune ukulele, computer-generated keyboards, and other sounds — all anchored in a simple pop base.

But this is hardly pop music. Think of Moe Tucker, the legendary Velvet Underground drummer, or a low-tech, folksy Captain Beefheart, or a rocker who draws on the spirit of Albert Ayler. But Umberto really is doing her own thing, and the more you scratch about to define her roots, the farther away she gets get from you.

The last piece of the puzzle is Pensiero's lyrics. I've been reading a lot of Sylvia Plath lately and even downloaded a few MP3s of the poet reading her work, and at times the same demons that tortured the late author seem to be after Umberto as well. Most of Umberto's lyrics address being alone, finding love, losing love, and while this is, after all, just a record, Umberto has a gift for making you believe that every word, every screaming noise, is real and true.

Because Umberto's music isn't exactly the kind of thing most Ann Arborites want to listen to while sipping five-buck coffee drinks, her live gigs are rare and special events. So you don't want to miss her at Crazy Wisdom Bookstore on Saturday, July 22, where she'll be part of a triple bill with Misty Lyn and Emily Bate.

[Review published July 2006]