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Yeasayer - All Hour Cymbals

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Artist: Yeasayer

Album: All Hour Cymbals

Label: We Are Free

Review date: Oct. 23, 2007

Bear with me for a moment as I postulate the Theory of Big Expression, as it relates to this decade in American history. You’ll need it to understand where this is going.

Few would argue with me that we’re currently living in one of the most oppressive eras of American life since the Great Depression – and, like that particular downswing, it seems to be entirely catalyzed by our own doing. I wasn’t alive for that brand of sadness, obviously, nor was I around for the fallout of Vietnam or the Watergate scandal. I remember seeing Jimmy Carter on television during his tenure in office. Likewise, I remember Ronald Reagan; his presence, his advertising campaign (particularly in 1984), and what amounted to a brightly-colored, energetic façade of American life are just about all I carried away from his tenure in office. We now know this to be anything but, and I’m sure plenty of kids ages 10 and under in that era felt the effects of said presidency differently than I did, but we can’t account for much beyond what we experience.

My take on the '80s: Computers began to integrate with our lives; tragedies beset themselves with ongoing innovation; new Romantic crooning faded into Latin freestyle on the radio with commercial abandon (and why not? Both styles of music were made on the same manner of outboard musical gear and compressed using the same technology). We watched people take really big risks and fail. Delorean. Howard the Duck. Failures live in the past, and furthermore, these ones were challenged out of circulation during the liberation of the '90s (by far the best decade I've had a chance to experience), even as more dramatic notions, technology's ceaseless churning output, and busier complexities in music and art flooded its tail end as fully as freedom's bells saturated its beginnings.

The Theory can account for all of this. All it takes is two parts: a past, and a desire to reclaim all of the “betterness” within that past, to apply to the misery of the present. As our memory of events begins to dull and congeal into one big “past,” the Theory, and its practitioners, does a lot of the heavy lifting for us, keeping the good memories around and blocking the bad. Can’t you sense this general slowing down of what we hold as our cultural touchstones of today? That’s Big Expression at work. Artists apply enormous, bright, slow-moving statements as a salve on our troubled minds, in essence attempting to create a real-time reconstruction of what memory is like to experience. Big Expression covers us from the terrifying ability to know what’s happening with virtually everyone in the world on a personal level. Big Expression pleads for our focus on music with big neon bible lights and oozing containers of preserves, with a profound statement told in an epic presentation. In film, it presents images of worlds we’ve never seen before. Big Expression is not about a drab, arid war of attrition that’s eating all of our resources. It’s not even convinced with the efforts it might take to stop said war, even though it seems that nobody wants it to continue. Big Expression wants to be good, and sometimes is, but often sticks cotton in our ears and points our heads in a direction that, once noticed, our hearts are sure to follow.

These things, as well as the hundreds of other qualifiers and billions of incidents in the history of this world, are mentioned here because Yeasayer, a new band from Brooklyn, embodies them to a tee. While many bands take years to build up something significant to say, through sound and genre affiliations, All Hour Cymbals, the group’s debut, offers up profundities by the bushel, be they soaring vocals, monolithic chord movements, passages in which the decrease in the number of specific sounds drills home sadness and grief, and passages in which the grandiose swelling of said sounds trigger a similar emotional tumescence. Its members – keyboardist Anand Walker, bassist Chris Keating, guitarist Ira Wolf Tuton and drummer Luke Fasano, all singing in difficult four-part counterpart, and juggling multiple tasks in the studio and on stage – accomplish the creation of a golden haze of song, one which rolls up notions of world music and the worship that often spawns those modes of expression. They fashion these sentiments through a decadent ‘70s Laurel Canyon mentality, pretty much the exact same way that Buckingham-Nicks era Fleetwood Mac did on their two most popular albums and the experiment that followed (the seminal Tusk, one of the most noticeable signifiers in Yeasayer’s oeuvre), as Jefferson Starship did once all notions of the social changes brought about in their ‘60s existence had melted down into strings, electric piano, and synthesizers. Yeasayer proudly grinds up any number of Big Expressive dollar-bin record ideas – see also the heyday output of Styx, Christopher Cross’s “Ride Like the Wind,” and ELO circa Eldorado, among dozens of others – into a sonic balm where the goals they’d like to transfer upon the listener are nothing more than nostalgia and warmth, tinged with a touch of regret.

Some might look back to the times in which these artists existed, and draw parallels to the state of the world, then versus now. Certainly oil dependency figures into it, as do the pursuits of leisure as a method of escapism. That said, I can’t help but think that Yeasayer are the more desperate aggregation of these ideas: fears of the future (“2080”), the yin and yang between the sun-dappled “Wait for the Summer” and the coriander dirge of “Wait for the Wintertime,” the material incantations of “No Need to Worry” (“We got a present for your mama,” sings the lot). On the album’s lone track that feels stripped of studio blending, the bonus coda “Red Cave,” all we hear about is how happy the performers are to be surrounded by friends and family, a life of plenty where the haves are stripped of material value. Of course, each of these songs sounding like a Middle Eastern carnival teetering on a garish, animated fall into an abyss helps these sentiments along. The last tracks on All Hour Cymbals melt completely under the notions that propelled the rest of it across, as if its makers had exhausted themselves over the forging of such a Big thing.

If their contribution roots itself in so much emotional material, then why listen? Simple listening enjoyment plays into it, of course. And, besides, not everyone shares the belief that music is trying to trick us. For a lot of bands, that notion doesn’t even come into play. Exercises of pure enjoyment are everywhere, particular in niche genres of music for which there is a smaller, yet determined fanbase. I haven’t yet played Yeasayer backwards, so I can’t tell if these shimmering passages of mandolin, warm bass beds and treated, infinity-tracked vocals aren’t some backwards-masked message convincing me to spend more or join the Navy. I can tell you, however, that by choosing to paint their material with this much feeling, through that much mist and intentional obfuscation and blending of signals, that they have both successfully created a landmark piece of music, and that, by virtue of their performance and live show, that they have as good a method of communication and groupthink as any new band out there, one which can only improve over time. That they were able to provide a nearly exact replication of this album in the live setting, deployed by switching between instruments, sequencers and manual sample triggers with fractured precision, suggests a tighter-than-tight musical methodology, an annotated language of play in which everyone involved is beyond accountable.

It’s a massive undertaking, this Big Expression. It seeks out order and demands its participants to follow along, just as this review (and reviewer) is drawn to contemplate the whys behind that notion. Yeasayer have made a record that’s as beautiful as its foundations of sound are dangerous, a gigantic outpouring of light melancholy and sweeping gestures that threaten to bind us together under impenetrable logic. And while I wouldn’t go as far to say that they’re covering up for something or someone, I will say that the ability to get lost in their music is incredibly simple, and as dangerous as it gets.

By Doug Mosurock

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