February 8, 2010
Album review: Yeasayer - 'Odd Blood' (Mute)
Not just 'going pop', the Brooklyn boys coagulate the world into hummable form
8 / 10
Following the charge led by Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear last year, the waiting room marked ‘Candidates for 2010 New Weird America Great Crossover Potential’ is already heaving. In there we have Beach House, [a]White Hinterland… and, ah, who’s that at the door? Yeasayer, Brooklyn band, neo hippies with a penchant for synthesizers and string vests.
Previous? Released 2007’s universally applauded ‘All Hour Cymbals’, a genre-Dyson which “could soundtrack the birth of a tiger cub” (NME) and landed itself the 197th spot in Pitchfork’s ; picked up followers through an MGMT tour; provided vocals for Simian Mobile Disco’s ‘Audacity Of Huge’; added production and bass to Bat For Lashes’ ‘Daniel’, ‘Pearl’s Dream’, ‘Sleep Alone’ and ‘Glass’ (ie, the best tracks on ‘Two Suns’). Might not be up there with Animal ‘Two Brits Nominations’ Collective (although maybe they’ll be up for Best Breakthrough too once they’ve got seven albums of their own), but they’re not doing too badly.
Now? Cleaned up and looking to consolidate their modicum of global success with their “pop album”. Oh yes, the ‘p’ word – the building noise around Yeasayer’s second album since it leaked three months ago has reverberated with celebrations/accusations of a grasp for the mainstream. And the truth is, Yeasayer have gone more populist here – but only in the sense that Kasabian went a bit more edgy with their last. They remain, at heart, music’s conquistadors, still trawling the globe for unearthed sounds and unexploited resources, bringing home precious spoils for their dedicated followers. Actually, scrap that, it’s more of a safari than a conquest; these are definitely ‘take only pictures, leave only footprints’ types of guys. And their holiday snaps are anything but ‘arty’.
‘Ambling Alp’ you’ll know already; a rollicking beast that’s one of the most un-pop yet perfect pop songs you’ll ever hear, packed with juddering drum thunder, leaps of falsetto and shoehorned brass blasts (its video, incidentally, featuring as it does naked bodies rolling down desert slopes, mirror-faced boxers and visual effects straight out of The Abyss, is enough to dispel any accusations of overly commercial ambitions several times over).
‘Rome’ begins with what sounds suspiciously like a Korg synth’s ‘wobble board’ preset switched to Argos-garden-shed-panel before exploding into a high-pitched slanging match between synth chords and vocal chords. ‘Strange Reunions’, meanwhile, laughs in the face of conventional time signatures while still being reminiscent of ‘Second Coming’-era Stone Roses. The throaty Stylophone stylings of ‘Mondegreen’, meanwhile, lay the perfect foundation for Chris Keating’s considerable vocal double-somersault-tucks.
Everyone’s favourite decade, the ’80s, squats heavy over much of this too. ‘Madder Red’ boasts Bonnie Tyler tom-toms that would have Mike Tyson fetching his drumsticks faster than a dementedly keen puppy, and somewhere in Connecticut Paul Simon is searching his archives for the parent track to the reggae-ish ‘ONE’.
As if the retro pop sounds weren’t cosy enough, lyrically the album is crammed with well-weathered but beautifully expressed sentiments. Take ‘Ambling Alp’’s agony aunt aphorisms: “Now the world can be an unfair place at times/But your lows will have their complement of highs/And if anyone should cheat you, take advantage of or beat you/Raise your head and wear your wounds with pride/You must stick up for yourself son, never mind what anybody else done”. It’s enough to bring a lump to the throat. Similarly, ‘I Remember’ is packed full of sepia-tinted ruminations (making love on a Sunday, fresh cut grass in May) before climaxing with the beautiful “you’re stuck in my mind, all the time”.
For all these moments of warm simplicity, though, ‘Odd Blood’’s true mentalistic microcosm is ‘Love Me Girl’. It suggests a rave at the rim of the world, where sunrise strikes the backs of a thousand naked nymphs, propelled by a thumping backbone so powerful you can feel it even when it drops to half time or falls out completely for a section. Around 17 songs crammed into one, it forces your imagination to do pirouettes, conjuring images of animals burrowing, goblins climaxing, comets arching across the sky, great gods speaking from behind parted storm clouds. It plays havoc with Microsoft Word’s metaphor setting. And as far as we can tell its only lyrical inspiration is unrequited love.
There’s so many layers here – samples, sound effects, coos, squawks, chirrups, chants, piano loops, percussive clicks, digital zips – but intertwined there remains those melodies, as old as time itself. And that’s the yolk of Yeasayer’s golden eggs: the ability to trawl the world for gems and condense them into five-minute distorted ditties you can whistle while washing up. It’s a musical package holiday you can take vicariously, World Music For Dummies.
Yeasayer’s greatest achievement is their balancing act, teetering between heartfelt and overly earnest, between invoking and pastiching past decades, between worldly experimentalism and token tourism. And if you still think they’ve gone pop, maybe the best way to decipher this dense, ambitious album is to judge the book by its cover – the two frankly bizarre images created by Benjamin Phelan that are “the study of a future with a distorted biology”. Pretty appropriate, given the genetic anomalies coursing through Yeasayer. Odd blood indeed. Tim Chester
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