Friday, November 02, 2007

Get In The Sunrise

Yeasayer – All Hour Cymbals

There’s a similar buzz around this debut album from Brooklyn’s Yeasayer as surrounded Arcade Fire’s ‘Funeral’ on its initial release. That excitement seems already to have spread from blogs and webzines to the conventional music press who have, admirably, been much quicker to react on this occasion. I’ve already ranted at length about the NME’s description of Yeasayer as ‘world music that doesn’t make you want to puke’. I’m grateful to the anonymous reader who quite rightly corrected me on my own description of the group as White Americans (one member is Indian and another is Jewish), although I think my point about the NME and its astoundingly ignorant journalism still holds. The clear implication is that ‘world music’ is only OK if it is filtered through the prism of a Western based indie band. It was more an issue of territorial rather than racial prejudice.

I don’t want to focus on that now though, as the paper’s enthusiasm for Yeasayer is not, to my mind, misplaced. The band’s unison shouting vocals certainly recall the collective energy of Arcade Fire at their best, but, in what may be an unfair comparison, the sheer musical audacity of ‘All Hour Cymbals’ reveals that much lauded band’s increasingly transparent limitations. Whilst Arcade Fire prefer layering grandiose instrumentation upon what are really rather basic chugging rock templates, much of the music on ‘All Hour Cymbals’ is intricate, fascinating and rhythmically inventive. This band’s closest contemporaries may be the likes of Animal Collective or TV on the Radio, although it’s worth emphasising that their own blend of influences is uniquely diverse and impressively organic.

This is a genuinely remarkable record characterised by a questing ambition completely absent from our domestic rock scene in the UK. Just listen to the rhythm section alone, which is carefully orchestrated and technically adventurous, particularly the inventive bass lines. It seems as if every beat and every note is played to add depth or meaning. On top of this more than solid foundation comes striking and beautiful vocal harmony closely resembling those of The Byrds or Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Although the rather mean sleeve only lists nine tracks on ‘All Hour Cymbals’, there are in fact 11, with two quite lengthy untitled tracks rounding off the proceedings. The album begins in imaginative but accessible terrain with the groovy and spirited ‘Sunrise’, where bass and percussion immediately stand out as the most effective parts of the ensemble. ‘Wait For The Summer’ is more reflective in tone, but its dense vocal arrangements are entrancing. ‘2080’ offers signs of some seriously unfashionable influences, sounding not unlike that highly respected rock classic ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ by Tears for Fears. It’s a remarkable track though, veering from mellifluous African-sounding guitar cadences though to tribal vocal assaults.

The album becomes more mysterious, wispy and elusive as it progresses and, as such, requires a few listens to leave its complete impression. It is music to inhabit rather than pass through though, and it casts a cumulatively powerful spell. ‘No Need To Worry’ is both complex and compelling, whilst the more atmospheric tracks towards the album’s conclusion, particularly ‘Worms/Waves’ are mesmerising in their range of sounds and styles. ‘Worms/Waves’ appears to draw from traditional Indian folk music in its non-Western sounding guitar lines, and perhaps also from Middle Eastern or African music in its unconventional percussion.

It’s tempting to conclude on a resoundingly negative note by again emphasising the point about the lack of comparable ambition in British rock music. Aside from Radiohead, where are the bands striving to make such inventive use of the studio and of production? Where are the bands working to mould rock music into a vital and thoroughly contemporary form of composition and arrangement that is both elaborate and viscerally exciting in this way? If there are any out there, they are not being effectively marketed, and the British music scene is depressingly stagnant as a result.

Ultimately, I’d like to conclude more positively though. Yeasayer are a band unafraid to express idealistic sentiment, both in their use of natural world imagery and futurist preoccupations. The sounds of summer and sunrise persist throughout, whilst ‘2080’ argues that ‘by 2080, only enlightenment can prevent terror everywhere’. This is not, in itself, a very encouraging thought about our global future. We don’t seem to be moving much closer to enlightenment at the moment (and, historically, ‘enlightenment’ is a rather tricky and misleading concept anyway). Yet, it’s comforting in these times to find a band with the clarity and spirit to express ideals. Again, comparison is unfavourable to Arcade Fire – an ungenerous assessment of ‘The Neon Bible’ would describe it as a rather vague extended apocalyptic whinge. ‘All Hour Cymbals’ seems like so much more than that. It is positively charged.

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