We’re going to review some records again. Records we think we all should care about whether they’re good or bad. Cool? Cool.
For the readers: I’m on a constant search for new ideas and sounds, regardless of genre, whether they come from A Place to Bury Strangers and Grizzly Bear or Madlib and Aphex Twin. The best music for me is when someone is able to make something that’s different and artistically viable yet still remains, at heart, a pop song. I would also kill you if Tom Waits asked me to. These are my thoughts.
0 stars – Complete and utter garbage
1 star – Best just not to ever press play, save your ears for another day
2 stars – Not completely atrocious, but one you’ll probably forget about as soon as it’s over
3 stars – Good, but not great, likely with some excellent songs and others you’ll skip right through
4 stars – Damn good album, one you’ll definitely want to enjoy again and again
5 stars – Instant Classic
Well, it’s a new year so that means it’s time for another Brooklyn band (or two) to ascend from critical darling to Urban Outfitters playlist all-star. I don’t know if it’s based on how long they’ve been around or if every January everyone gets together at Sufjan Stevens’ apartment and spin a bottle to see who goes next. Regardless, now that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have gone trans-global, TV on the Radio has gone Hollywood, Animal Collective won 2009, Grizzly Bear won Radiohead, and now Vampire Weekend made history with their latest album, “Graceland 2,” (I know it’s called “Contra”, but I think it should be called “Graceland 2” and you can hate me for it), it’s time for whomever was on deck to step up to the plate and claim their rightful place at David Byrne’s side.
Which brings us to the new Yeasayer record, “Odd Blood.” Sonically it’s a complex step, both forward and sideways, from their acclaimed debut “All Hour Cymbals.” While the signature aspects of that record are still around (soaring vocal harmonies, West African guitar lines and tribal rhythms), they’ve been tamed. It’s a more mature sound, less dependent on those elements and drawing from a much-expanded palette, pushing toward something more electronic, lusher, and dancier. “Odd Blood” sounds like a band that has learned a lot and wants it to show.
In the context of the record as a whole, the leadoff track, “The Children,” with its minimalist music bed and distorted vocoder, seems to be a setup to knock you off balance before “Ambling Alp,” the album’s much lauded first single that was released late last year. In the rest of the songs that follow, we find Yeasayer reinventing themselves both lyrically and sonically. Senegalese basslines are heavily processed and morphed, guitars are fuzzed out and pushed back in the mix, and synths have become the primary occupants of the mid to upper frequencies. Drums and cymbals mingle with samples and synthetic percussion, cascading across speakers.
Chris Keating has one of the more notable voices around today, but this time his lyrics move into much more personal territory than they previously did in “All Hour Cymbals.” Like so many countless other bands, Yeasayer’s subject matter for their sophomoric release, following a quick rise to relative success, shifts to the matter of strained relationships. Unlike so many other bands though, it never feels like whining about fame or the months spent on the road. Instead, it’s a heartfelt and touching record, beneath the dance grooves and heavy production, bordering on being a concept album about the heartbreak emotion spectrum; dealing with longing (the super sad/super catchy, “You’re stuck in my mind/All of the time” refrain on “I’ll Remember”), with doubt (I can’t believe in one of us/I can’t know how long this love will last”), with attempts at resolutions (“But if my vices are a burden/Please don’t let me down/Cast me from your home”), and finally with acceptance (“You don’t move me anymore/And I’m glad that you don’t/’cause I don’t have you anymore”), mindful throughout it all of his advice on “Ambling Alp,” encouraging us to “Stick up for yourself, man/Never mind what anybody else done.”
While it’s easy to read into Keating’s lyrics, and to see how the each song would apply to the trials and tribulations that bands encounter when the requirements and trappings of pseudo-fame strain, and often end, relationships, they never quite cross the line into that point where the listener can no longer identify with him.
If the record has one flaw though, is that their new found sheen takes away from the rawness of their previous record and their (amazing) shows. The unrefined and energetic moments on “All Hour Cymbals”, such as the explosive bridge breakdown on “2080”, conveyed an energy and honesty that may be missing on this new album. Still, it’s a much stronger effort overall with far less filler, and it’s obvious that it’s not meant to sound at all like a live record. It should be exciting to see what they do with these songs when they play D.C. next.
In the end we’re left with a feeling of encouragement, not just in the ability to come out on the other side of such matters of the heart as better people, but of Yeasayer being more than just another band that rode in on the Africa-inspired sound that was so prevalent before everyone went chillwave. Like the Dirty Projectors, they’ve used those influences as a jumping off point and evolved it into something wholly their own. With “Odd Blood”, they challenge not just themselves but their fan base as well, giving us one of those records that has the magical quality of leaving you both satisfied and excited to hear it again, yet eager to find out what they’ll do next.
On a scale of the Saint to Doc Holliday, I’ll give it a Madmartigan (4.5).
(preorder “odd blood” now, get free stuff)