Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Second Album Fail

Yeasayer – Odd Blood (Mute)

Yeasayer’s debut album ‘All Hour Cymbals’ seemed precariously balanced on a knife-edge between two extremes – hippy idealist psychedelia on one side and over-egged 80s pop on the other. It succeeded in walking a tightrope between the two due to its graceful melodies and the group’s instrumental prowess and skills in arranging. Its follow-up ‘Odd Blood’ certainly favours the band’s 80s preoccupations, frequently resembling Tears for Fears or Duran Duran.

It starts auspiciously with a total red herring. ‘The Children’ is an uncomfortable and sinister concoction dominated by creepy vocal effects, eerie sounds and a slow pace that serves to bewitch and hypnotise rather than soothe the listener. Its sheer weirdness suggests that ‘Odd Blood’ might live up to its title.

What follows mostly favours bright, infectious choruses that border on irritating. The musical backdrop largely consists of tribal-sounding tom toms and swathes of synth pads that do little to enhance or support these rather thin and lightweight songs. Occasionally, there is superimposed faux-sophistication that feels forced and lacks depth. The frequent comparisons with Animal Collective are understandable, but the similarities are all superficial. ‘Odd Blood’ doesn’t invoke anything as startling as the joyful synaesthesia of ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’.

This sonic consistency perhaps shouldn’t be all that surprising. ‘2080’, one of the most popular songs on ‘All Hour Cymbals’ worked in spite of its strong resemblance to ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’. Sometimes they pull off a similar trick here. Despite its litany of lyrical clichés, ‘Ambling Alp’ still manages to be maddeningly irresistible. This is at least in part because the band imposes an entirely unexpected and highly imaginative middle section, complete with bizarre saxophones and deviating from the song’s otherwise predictable and formulaic structure.

The biggest problem with ‘Odd Blood’ is the switch of focus away from the arrangements and on to Chris Keating’s slight, reedy vocals, particularly grating when he adopts an untutored falsetto. ‘I Remember’ is another song of love, loss and memory to add to the substantial canon, but the bland and dated backing makes it difficult to experience any emotional impact. Peter Gabriel might be a reference point for this and the preceding ‘Madder Red’, but Gabriel’s songs have always had so much more depth and honesty. Most of the songs on ‘Odd Blood’ seem tricksy and contrived.

‘O.N.E.’ and ‘Love Me Girl’ make up the album’s quirky, upbeat centre. It’s difficult to resist unfavourable comparisons with Hot Chip here. There are a number of musical similarities – not least the 80s influences and single line synth riffs. But there’s nothing affecting or emotionally nuanced here. Regardless of the lyrical context, the insistent but limited melodies offer little hint of longing, melancholy, regret, excitement or discovery. ‘Love Me Girl’ particularly emerges as something of an incoherent mess of pick and mix influences (Prince, Depeche Mode, A-Ha, Duran Duran and much more besides).

In the album’s less focused second half, there are teasing hints of what might have been. The asymmetrical ‘Strange Reunions’, with its offbeat handclaps, devious melodic lines and psychedelic influences is initially beguiling, but it fades out abruptly, seeming like an interrupted journey. Nevertheless, it’s the one point where the group sound relaxed, not trying too hard to be accessible or clever. The saxophones are back to entertaining effect on ‘Mondegreen’, a nimble update of the Motown Stomp severely let down by some silly lyrics (‘everybody’s talking about me and my baby making love ‘til the morning light’ – are we really?).

However elaborately produced ‘All Hour Cymbals’ may have been, it was still believably the work of a band. On ‘Odd Blood’, Yeasayer appear to have stifled any sense of interaction or musicality in favour of a self-regarding, artificial sheen. It’s worth remembering that if the band really are hinting at the artful electro-pop of Talk Talk, then those records sound more durable and satisfying now than ‘Odd Blood’ does. This is a record that is trying desperately to impress, but ends up deeply irritating. It’s a real disappointment from a band that appeared to have considerable potential.

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