mute artists | lp+cd/cd/i stumm346 | 20/08/2012
If 2010’s Odd Blood was Yeasayer‘s attempt to have what the band’s Chris Keating described at the time as a ‘dialogue with pop’, third album Fragrant World is more or less a reaction against the dominance of that album’s deliberately anthemic sound. On Odd Blood that approach yielded huge tracks like ‘Ambling Alp’ and ‘O.N.E’ but it also left Keating and the others – Anand Wilder and Ira Wolf Tuton – feeling a little dismayed that the audience at their shows really only knew and cared for those songs.
Taking its seemingly pastoral title from a vision Keating had of a dystopian, Ballardian world devoid of smell, Fragrant World was recorded in the band’s Brooklyn home at the studio of Daniel Lopatin, also known as experimental musician Oneohtrix Point Never. Whilst it may sound much more electronic than its predecessor, with little unprocessed guitar to be heard, during an interview with Keating that I did for Clash, he insisted that the record was created using plenty of guitar and bass sounds, but that those were used to trigger samplers and various sound sources alongside pure electronics. When I suggested that actually it isn’t a very electronic record at all, he challenged me to rethink my concept of what makes an electronic record, it not being necessary to think of such a record as being dominated by traditional keyboards and synths.
One of Yeasayer’s more characteristic facets, namely tracks which seem capable of being depressing and uplifting at the same time, is never very far away. Opening track, ‘Fingers Never Bleed’ is a case in point. Built on a jerky rhythm, Anand Wilder delivers a strained vocal complete with resigned observations on people who want to take the easy option of playing air guitar and committing corporate fraud (an interesting slant that suggests both are equal sins) so that their ‘fingers never bleed’. Sonically busy, the song sets the tone for Fragrant World with lots of loops, skittering percussion, relaxed guitar and piano, the elements coalescing into a vaguely uplifting chorus blended with whining electronics that leaves you characteristically unsure how you should be feeling. ‘Demon Road’ is another track with an Odd Blood feel, albeit one that is dubby, steady, regretful and anguished. ‘All hell is gonna break loose,‘ sings Keating, the track having that same, complex, anguished anthemic quality that defined Fragrant World‘s predecessor. The conclusion sees vocodered vocals blended with straight harmonies, something about the stridency of the combination feeling like an electro-country missive.
Keating told me about his enthusiasm for late Eighties Chicago house when I spoke with him. Like many of the echoes of other musics that get filtered through Yeasayer’s sonic lens, it’s not something that overtly features on Fragrant World. Nevertheless, tracks like ‘No Bones’ hint at that interest. After some stop-start robotic beats, there’s a point in Keating’s ‘chorus’ where the beats become a sticky 4/4 mesh, much like a breakdown in a DJ’s set, sending the not-quite fontman into rapturous, housey euphoria. Stand-out track ‘Reagan’s Skeleton’ has a droning bassline, and even features the classic ‘ah yeah‘ sample, once the staple of early dance music records. Over thudding beats, Keating delivers a vocal about the evil red-eyed skeleton of Reagan coming at you, horror-film stylee, in the moonlight. It’s urgent and slick, blending evocative Eighties sounds with classic dance music synths and altogether more modern sensibilities.
If Keating’s songs aim for some sort of transcendancy, Wilder’s songs are altogether more introspective. ‘Blue Paper’ opens with processed sounds that could have been lifted from an Indian cinema soundtrack. Wilder here delivers a cynical tale of a rich girl who suddenly decides to reconnect with nature, moving away from her spoiled life, something Wilder can’t ‘buy for a second‘. Musically, it’s subtle, gentle pulses and shimmering sounds until the middle eight of the song, where things get a bit wonky, the track concluding with a retro electro rhythm and some nice vocal harmonies about writing something on blue paper. Live highlight ‘Devil And The Deed’ has fractured electro beats, electronic slide guitar and occasional synth interjections; the track maintains a minimal footprint until the chunky, desperate chorus, which seems to be about sexual pressure, declining moral standards, and difficult, agonised decisions. There are also two beautiful instrumental sections which have an electronic musicbox melody, evoking warm memories of Depeche Mode‘s ‘Shouldn’t Have Done That’ from This Broken Frame.
Two of the most unusual songs close out the album. ‘Folk Hero Schtick’, is, on the surface at least, a joyous, upbeat jangly electro pop with a vocal that sounds suspiciously like Wilder doing an impression of Level 42’s Mark King. It seems to be a tired plea for a famous folk hero (Dylan?) to call it quits. Lots of big electronic sounds and a fair amount of processing make for a sprawling, but engaging skewed pop highlight of Fragrant World. Album finale ‘Glass Of The Microscope’ starts as classically low-key end to the album, with wistful vocals reminiscing about nice days and sweet memories. After some beautiful, serene ambience, sympathetically processed vocals take a turn toward the unexpected with the misanthropic line ‘in truth we’re doomed‘. It’s wryly humourous with its Dad’s Army-style sense of panic, but as an ending point it’s pretty depressing, even if the track’s final moments are among the most stirring on the whole album.
In the US, the album was released as a special edition LP with a free 7″ of the non-album track ‘Fragrant World’ backed with an exclusive remix of ‘No Bones’ as well as a t-shirt. Here in Blighty, Mute didn’t opt for such shenanigans, and the bonus track was only made available as a iTunes pre-order exclusive. Later in the year, at the Rough Trade East Mute showcase with high-end personal audio equipment manufacturer Bowers & Wilkins in December, the indie music chain ran a promotion to get a free copy of the 7″ if you bought any Yeasayer release. (Apparently there are two versions of the 7″ – a black one and a glow-in-the-dark one). Quite why the band decided to leave ‘Fragrant World’ off the album is something of a mystery, particularly as it was part of their live set, as it’s a really good track – lots of deep electronic sounds, organic percussion, really evocative, weary vocals from Chris Keating and even some quirky guitar and electronic sax tones. The Helado Negro mix of ‘No Bones’ is a bit of a mess, a jumble of snatched sections from the original assembled into a weird collage.
Videos for all eleven songs from the album were put on various websites for around 48 hours at the start of August 2012 under the banner PSCYVOTV (PREEMPTIVE SELF-COMMISSIONED YEASAYER VORSTELLUNG or TRACK VISUALIZER), allowing those with plenty of time to kill a wild goose chase around the farthest corners of the web to see director Yoshi Sodeoka’s vignettes and hear the album before its official release.
A1. / 1. Fingers Never Bleed
A2. / 2. Longevity
A3. / 3. Blue Paper
B1. / 4. Henrietta
B2. / 5. Devil And The Dead
C1. / 6. No Bones
C2. / 7. Reagan’s Skeleton
C3. / 8. Demon Road
D1. / 9. Damaged Goods
D2. / 10. Folk Hero Shtick
D3. / 11. Glass Of The Microscope
12. Fragrant World (iTunes bonus track)
A. Fragrant World
B. No Bones (Helado Negro Remix)
First published 2012; edited 2014.
(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence