All words and photos by Molly Beauchemin.
For the many who claimed in 2010 that ‘Brooklyn’ is the new ‘Manhattan’, Wednesday’s Yeasayer concert in Central Park was part of a diachronic venture towards the self-conscious reclamation of ‘cool’: Manhattan, after all, is trying to be the new ‘Brooklyn’. And to that end, riding the resurgent wave of popular interest in indie music (thanks, Dubstep producers, for remixing the shit out of it and catapulting it to the mainstream…) they enlisted Yeasayer and Tanlines, two famously L-Train indie bands who had each released monster albums this year: Yeasayer’s Fragrant World for Secretly Canadian, and Tanlines’ Mixed Emotions LP for True Panther.
The two synthy Williamsburg acts had been dragged to 5th Avenue for a show in The City (purposeful capitalization); meanwhile, Brooklyn curled up with the new xx album and indifferently suggested that Manhattan might consider returning its (notably used) CD collection. Manhattan then blushed like an obeisant sibling mentee, and Portland giggled in its corner, nursing a twice-lit cigarette and scoffing at the callow hipster infighting that continues to transpire between the birthplace of indie music (Brooklyn), and the companion town that wants so badly to corner the same niche: the “concrete jungle where dreams are made, oh” (there’s nothing you can’t do!).
Manhattan’s event planners managed to book two of the biggest upcoming indie acts for a sizeable crowd of Central Park patrons, as part of its well-applauded summer concert series. (Earlier in the summer, they booked Childish Gambino, Foster The People, and Beach House.) And the effect was as much to the listeners’ chagrin as it was to my own amazement and surprise: city dwellers actually came out for this, in legions. Let’s hear it for New York.
Around sunset, wisps of fans slowly crept in to Rumsey Playfield, mostly lounging during a modest but rousing DJ set by Daedalus, who provided a warpy backdrop to the early fall’s waning sun. Moved by spacey loops and control-board flourishes, bowler hat-wearing New-Age types could be seen double-fisting beers and indulging in oven-fired pizza in the intimate arena’s northeast corner.
Ticketholders soon drifted back to the stage for Tanlines, whose duo of guitar-playing vocalist Eric Emm and drum master Jesse Cohen split their time between playing music and delivering self-deprecating banter during an equipment malfunction: “Does anyone have any requests while we wait to get this fixed?” [mildly awkward silence] “No? ….Man, this is starting to feel like my Bar Mitzvah…”, said Emm, in an attempt at humor that wasn’t quite removed enough for us to be sure it didn’t still bother him. Genuinely rousing renditions of the catchier tunes from Mixed Emotions ensued, like the optimistic “Green Grass” and the plaintive but cathartic “Brothers”, whose techno jive smacked of Depeche Mode and Future Islands – and was, as ever, glossed with spacious, homogenizing synth. Throughout, we were happy to see Cohen banging his way through a live drum set, rather than fiddling about with a dweeby drum kit control pad — though with only one other bandmate on stage, any less equipment would’ve made it seem sparse.
“Thanks for making this a great summer,” Cohen concluded in his final valedictions, in a fitting backhanded ode to his own band’s emblematic season. Though September creeps closer to New Years every day, Tanlines’ disco grooving warmth took on an enduring quality for this show; and unlike the inevitable fate of its noun-form moniker, the audience was left with the impression that, clichéd tagline forthcoming, “Tanlines will never fade”.
Throughout the show, the random two dudes that are always found platonically standing behind you at a show like this (one hand in a corduroy jean pocket, the other hand cupping a foamless pale beer) would unknowingly deliver what they thought was perspective and praise, but what was actually just a fact about the performance — ambiguously tepid statements like “Man, that’s just two people up there, making all that noise,” (a boob-ish proclamation that’s no better than saying, “profundity, I lack that”).
Quotables aside, the audience seemed to respond to the general dancability of the entire set: Tanlines’ macro, boomeranging bassline and its marriage to a cathedralling reverb were sufficient to achieve a surprisingly sprawling sound. The last song, the trendy “All Of Me” opened with a wind-chimey interlude, with synth bits suggesting M83 and 80’s dancehall sparklebop. The sound was huge – but to a regrettable fault: we enjoyed the Tanlines’ set early on, but its explosive, rapturous ending left us wishing that the entire performance had showcased the same, maximalist dimension.
With the sun sufficiently buried, the crowd’s anticipation of Yeasayer spurned my mulling over some of the early reflections on the newest album:
Rolling Stone had given Fragrant World a respectable 3.5 stars — a modest but muted dissection – and Pitchfork had said that Fragrant World was unremarkable.
Prior to reading either review, I listened to the album a few times and decided I probably didn’t need to hear it again. And then I read that the album took heavy inspiration from late R&B artist Aaliyah, who is right now, in weirdly concise fashion, experiencing something of a posthumous renaissance in the indie community (even Tanlines’ Mixed Emotions was mixed by former Aaliyah producer, Jimmy Douglass) which filled me with liquid incredulity. Aaliyah’s music was urban and relaxed; why was Yeasayer channeling so much grandeur?
The most pervasive criticism I’d read of the album, which articulated a reflection to which I also subscribed, was that the tempo changes left something to be desired: that is, the songs were unprogressive. But interestingly, the superb dimension of the show is what made it great.
Every song stood apart from its predecessor, and each sound was totally distinct.
In fact, the concert may have showcased Yeasayer’s newest work more effectively than the most recent album. Everyone likes live music, but this rendition was actually better than the recording, thanks to some time signature enunciation: they harnessed a little more fidelity, but instead of using it as a gloss, they cut jagged paper snowflakes out of the page-bound descriptors previously published about their music.
Before Yeasayer jumped onstage, the amorphous metallic stage sculpture (which had been hibernating unacknowledged during the Tanlines set) slowly transformed into a psychedelic crystalline pile of jagged icebergs, glowing like multicultural embers in the shadows. Well-rigged spotlights alternately cast shadows on the shimmering construction, which looked like iridescent prisms as viewed through the squiggly air that hovers above hot pavement; like some unicorns tag-teamed a rainbow and used the One Ring’s power to channel its light from within the mini mountains set up between lead vocalist Chris Keating and bassist Ira Wolf Totun; like the band members were hipster Thumbelinas performing in some unfurling ice cube lotus flower, with stations for their instruments nestled within blocks of light-scattering, translucent moon rocks — the Jeff Koons interpretation.
Somewhere across the plain, drummer Ahmed Gallab stood methodically drilling out cherubic timekeeping as front-man Chris Keating whacked a single drum pad with a single drum stick with singularly comical intensity — the kind of fervor that suggests Will Ferrell taking the cowbell a little too seriously — only his zeal was weirdly cathartic and his gusto almost badass (almost).
The set opened with “Blue Paper” from 2012’s recently released Fragrant World, and featured building lyrical melodies, where harmony found happy companionship with the airy riffs and zigzagging synthesizers that were otherwise used, on the album, as a crutch. Here, instead, Yeasayer’s texture took a surprisingly accessible turn: continuing on to the sonically burlesque “Henrietta” (hugely popular with the crowd) and the frequently cajoled but admittedly catchy “2080” (a modest performance) the show enunciated historically marginalized chords and melodies, and the synth was played at a higher, carefully measured pitch as the band moved through “Longevity”, “ONE”, and the undulating, furiously catchy “Reagan’s Skeleton”.
The performance of “Demon Road” stood out for it’s twangy synth warble and burbling keyboard two-step. “All Hell/ is gunna break loose,” Keating exclaimed, managing to out-Muse himself with the song’s most singable suggestions of anarchy.
“Ambling Alp”, an old fan favorite, was notably disappointing as it concluded the opening set: the song sounded weirdly muted, as its instrumentation not only failed to reach Alps-towering heights, but the harmonies failed, as the song title otherwise suggested, to amble; the synth gloss was a little muddled, and in the absence of precise sonic execution, the song’s message stood half-naked and felt flat, not quite condescending nor contrived but just weirdly juvenile…poppy, even. “You might stick up for yourself, son/ never mind what anybody else done,” Keating sang, like actually. The guitars for the first time took a back seat in the concert’s joy ride, and in their seat-buckling, the baby-coo lyrics felt inscrutably forthright: was the cutesy palliative chorus supposed to be ironic?
For the encore – which Keating endearingly promised ahead of time (“this is our last song, which means we’ll pretend its our last song, and then we’ll do four more songs”), Yeasayer showcased, “Fingers Never Bleed”, a highly anticipated listen and the most purchased song off of Fragrant World, herewith sounding less monotone and taking on a more anthemic dimension than the album’s own recording of the same track. The contagious enthusiasm continued for three more songs: “Devil and the Deed”, “Tightrope”, and “Folk Hero Shtick”, the closer.
Light prisms on stage pulsing, seemingly with the liquid awesome power behind the band’s intensity and focus, the adroit virtuosity of their execution lent a less-trippy, anthemic dimension to the final song, its delivery drawing visual and sonic allusions to the city of New York itself; its perpetual friction and its humanity, and the light-spectrum mosaic of its diversified audience. As incongruous as the realization seemed, Yeasayer’s performance shed light on a fundamental truth as it pulsed through the night: New York is for the living. And that’s a cheesy and brash and perhaps hyberbolic statement – or more likely, too symbolic a statement considering what I mean to intimate in suggesting that Manhattan hasn’t lost a culture that Brooklyn has somehow managed to capture and reinvent. Greenwich Village will always be Greenwich Village. Soho’s got style, and Bedford Ave will always be colloquial and endearing. But maybe they all compliment each other, neighborhoods as disparate and wonderful as the radically different people I see on the streets of New York everyday, mixing and matching dreamy aspirations and banal vicissitudes at will. Weaving together this web of culture and iconography and the unremarkable ability to dance, on a Wednesday night, under towering trees growing like botanical non-sequitors inside the most famous urban metropolis in the world; a deviant reality so asininely beautiful in circumstance, goddamit, that experiencing it truly feels like a release from the caffeinated steady-state frenzy that otherwise defines the city. Acutely aware of the magnanimity of this town’s burgeoning population, we articulated these preposterously profound moments for ourselves in a man-made sanctuary of century-old trees, soundtracked by Yeasayer’s shimmering cacophony.
Maybe we’re from Brooklyn.
Maybe we’re from Manhattan.
Maybe we’re looking for an anthem that we can both get behind. (Though “Fingers Never Bleed” not only refuses to roll off the tongue, but it hardly placates the quest for Kumbaya…)
Maybe we’re so profoundly histrionic that the poignancy of all live music will inevitably lead us to these conclusions – that, jokes aside, both Tanlines and Yeasayer put on a good show, and that it was somehow extra cool of them to do it in an urban forest. But maybe we just needed that concert. Or maybe we simply need that symbiosis – that reminder that there is so much life and dimension in this city, as there was in this moment, through the music, Yeasayer pulsing zigzagging riffs through 80-decibel subwoofers in the middle of Central Park.