“I just assume no one is a fan, ” Yeasayer’s co-lead-vocalist and songwriter Chris Keating told Interview Magazine just before the release of the band’s 2012 album, Fragrant World.
I considered myself an un-fan for most of high school—not a particularly fair judgment, as I only knew that one song the band had written for a 2009 charity compilation called Dark Was the Night. The track, “Tightrope,” was sandwiched among the folkier takes that provided the soundtrack for my high school career: The National’s “So Far Around the Bend,” Iron and Wine’s “Die” (at last iTunes count, my plays for the latter totaled in the triple digits).
Still, I knew every word to “Tightrope,” through over-listening more than anything. Yeasayer didn’t yet have the volume of material or industry cred it possesses now. Formed in 2006, they put out their first album All Hour Cymbals quietly but to much acclaim a year later. Keating’s partner vocalist and songwriter Anand Wilder described the sound as “Middle Eastern-Psych-Pop-Snap-Gospel” (though he later confessed this was intended as a joke, according to the Washington Post). Their first single “2080” was lauded widely; then came “Sunrise,” a tour with Beck, with MGMT, an exhilarating show with La Blogothèque, and the Dark Was the Night compilation, a collaborative project produced by the Dessner brothers.
2010’s Odd Blood coincided with my “discovery” of the band. The new material had a poppier, more contemporary feel than what I’d previously heard, and the music seemed to confirm the band’s place on the festival circuit and its overwhelmingly positive reviews. It was a rare treat to (with a bit of revisionist history) feel as though I had cultivated my own music taste along with a band’s evolution.
Where bassist Ira Wolf Tuton described All Hour Cymbals as a “wall of sound” in The Quietus, Odd Blood dialed back the instrumentation. The result was three minutes and fifty-five seconds of wonderful titled “Ambling Alp” (which remains the band’s second-most-popular Spotify track). It’s bright, enthusiastic, energetic, sunny, and purportedly inspired by the band’s experimentation with acid in New Zealand.
Yeasayer has been called a lot of things. “Neo-hippies with a penchant for synthesizers and string vests,” (NME) “the nicest people in the business,” (Stereogum) “Enya with bounce” (self-described). And their music has earned even more labels and comparisons: “pop,” “world,” Graceland-era Paul Simon, Kasabian, David Byrne, “experimental rock,” straight-up “experimental”—but the conflicting terminology belies a problem in genre-pigeonholing throughout the music industry. Yeasayer exists at a convergence point of a century of pop music, but refuses to conform to any of its predecessors.
Wilder nonchalantly plays this off, explaining that even the most direct, evident influences on All Hour Cymbals were the result of a whim. “Ah Weir,” as he tells it, was the product of watching a Peter Weir movie, and the subsequent decision to write a soundtrack for an Australian new wave film.
But it’s also the mark of a quite earnest band. The members openly discount irony, and the result is refreshingly sincere in its diversity and its synthesis of influences across the music landscape. In turn, Yeasayer’s music lends itself well to all sorts of further genre-bending, to the extent that the genres fit in the first place. Childish Gambino sampled “Sunrise” on his mixtape, I Am Just a Rapper. Electronic musician Jon Hopkins recorded a piano cover of “I Remember.”
(Keating is also an un-ironic Nicolas Cage fan. Though I’ve cultivated a love for his band, I am not and will never be on board with this.)
So while NME declared that much of All Hour Cymbals sounded derivative of the Lion King soundtrack, the reviewers still had to acknowledge that the material defies the Brooklyn music scene where Yeasayer fostered its sound. And even when combining the beat of tom-tom drums, pealing vocals, and jangling tambourine, Yeasayer resists the ethnic exoticism that is often and rightly criticized in contemporary indie music. This kind of musical escapism means that the band never repeats itself. There’s a beautifully simple logic about Wolf Tuton’s declaration that, “If you liked what we did on our first album, you can get our first album.”
While All Hour Cymbals evokes a global influence and Odd Blood evidences the instrumentation of pop, the band’s most recent full-length effort Fragrant World embraces the electronic synth world of late-stage Radiohead or recent Animal Collective. It’s a work that invites polarizing opinions, but Yeasayer has never been one to come quietly.
“Whether negative or positive, I just value people’s strong reactions to what we are doing,” Wolf Tuton told The Quietus, echoing Keating’s remarks to Interview. The opening track, “Fingers Never Bleed” is frankly wonderful. Its chilly guitar cuts in between reverberating vocals over a muted beat. It starts out weird, and tracks like “Henrietta” and “Reagan’s Skeleton” get even weirder. Fragrant World is a departure from previous work, but what does a departure mean in the context of such a varied and compelling body of work?
Keating, Wolf Tuton, Wilder, and fourth member Cale Parks have been relatively quiet in the years since Fragrant World’s 2012 release—other artists have done more with their music than they have contributed new material. But Yeasayer did visit Providence supporting the album that year, performing downtown at Lupo’s in a burst of flashing lights and before a crowd of enthusiastic dancers. While Yeasayer fills, in part, the Spring Weekend electronic quota, the band’s work both embraces and transcends the categories set forth by its members and the blogs that made it famous.