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Yeasayer - Odd Blood

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Artist: Yeasayer

Album: Odd Blood

Label: Secretly Canadian

Review date: Feb. 8, 2010


Yeasayer - "O.N.E." (Odd Blood)


For the first couple years of the aughts, some music message boards were dominated by debates about rockism, which roughly means the application of the values behind rock music to all music, whether rock or not. This meant megabyte upon megabyte of venting against critics who, for example, filled out their top 10 albums of a given year for the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll, but neglected to fill out a ballot for their top ten singles. (The idea was that albums were the key medium for rock, but single songs were more important for hip hop and mainstream pop.)

These debates were important for mostly white, mostly male rock critics to hear, and they probably led some to be more self-aware than they otherwise might have been. They also probably led to some really strange things, like the indie rock website Pitchfork filling the upper ranks of its 2009 “top tracks of the decade” list with hip hop and techno.

I suspect many reviews of Odd Blood will sound rockist or, like this one, struggle to find some way not to. Yeasayer’s debut All Hour Cymbals was an indie rock fan’s dream—brilliantly performed on rock instruments, featuring a billion levels of instrumental detail, saying big things about what it meant to be an American in 2007, and yet recorded roughly enough (the lyrics were nearly indecipherable) that the underground-minded listener could imagine herself as part of a select group that was in on the secret.

Odd Blood is nothing like that. It fact, it might help if you don’t think of it as a Yeasayer album at all. Beyond Chris Keating’s voice, you have to look pretty hard to find much it has in common with its predecessor. At its best, Odd Blood sounds like the Knife, or a new-millennium update on Peter Gabriel, and that’s not a bad thing. At its worst, it sounds like an indie-rock kid singing a Taylor Dayne b-side, and I’m not really sure what to say about that. You may find that your level of appreciation for Odd Blood hinges on your tolerance for ’80s-style grooves that sometimes sound like they were inspired by the “demo” buttons on old Casios, and for lyrics like “I remember making out on an airplane / Still afraid of flying but with you I die today / I remember the smell of your skin forever / Love us being stupid together.”

That’s an extreme example, but there’s a strange tension throughout Odd Blood. Take “Ambling Alp”—the melodic twists on the verse and the bridge might remind you of All Hour Cymbals’ excellent “2080,” but the chorus has a silly reggae bounce, and it advises the listener to “Stick up for yourself, son / Never mind what anybody else done.” Take out the “son,” and that might as well be a Pink lyric.

That this bothers me activates my rockist guilt sensors, because surely it misses the point to criticize a pop record too harshly for being too generic (or, to put it even more pejoratively, cheesy) in its lyrical content, especially from the perspective of a listener inclined to give indie rock lyrics a free pass. Many indie rock lyrics are about the mere avoidance of cheesiness rather than the advancement of any sort of artistry.

Most pop music, though, is party music at its core, and is therefore about common feelings and situations that can bring people together. And anyway, pop music at its best is about the excitement of newness, and about the giddy mingling of ideas from different sources. Fretting about the lyrics too much would seem to miss the point. And it’s not as if the more party-friendly lyrical approach in Odd Blood is completely out of nowhere, since All Hour Cymbals was pretty celebratory for an indie rock record, even if the subtext (that we’re all going to die, so we might as well enjoy the time we have) was pretty bleak.

So, okay, Odd Blood is pop music—does it have that sense of discovery? Sometimes it does, and one of the few common threads connecting Odd Blood to All Hour Cymbals is that these guys really sound like fans of what they’re doing. Odd Blood has obviously been fussed over, and while it feels like it was inspired by ’80s dance tunes, all the ecstatic layers of rhythm ensure that it often feels refracted and kaleidoscopic in a way that’s very contemporary. The brilliant “Madder Red,” which mates a minor-key chorus straight out of Duran Duran with a very new-sounding falsetto hook, gets the balance between old and new exactly right. To find these moments, though, you’re going to have to get through stuff like “I Remember” and “O.N.E.” at least once.

As a critic, it’s rarely worthwhile to worry much about who’s going to like a record. What’s important is whether the record is good, or why it might be interesting. But I can’t help but think Odd Blood will fall flat with most fans of All Hour Cymbals. In 1997, the post-hardcore band Shudder to Think followed up their very strange, defiant album Pony Express Record with the more whimsical, pop-oriented 50,000 B.C. Like Odd Blood, 50,000 B.C. still had more than its share of quirks. But Shudder to Think’s fans rejected it, and it never found much of an audience. The changes in the two bands’ career paths are pretty similar, and the audience reactions might be as well.

Fortunately for Yeasayer, these are different times. The audience for independent pop music right now is quite large and probably isn’t so invested in rock anymore. It’s entirely possible that the skillfully-made Odd Blood will find an entirely new bunch of listeners. Many of the old ones, like this writer, will probably just find themselves frustrated.

By Charlie Wilmoth

Other Reviews of Yeasayer

All Hour Cymbals

Fragant World

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Find out more about Secretly Canadian

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