A Brooklyn band earns its geographical distinction.
Mon Feb 1 2010
The refrain of Yeasayer’s first single from its sophomore album, Odd Blood, out this week, goes: “You must stick up for yourself, son / Never mind what anybody else done.” Frontman Chris Keating’s lyrics are ostensibly about 1930s heavyweight champion Primo Carnera, nicknamed the “Ambling Alp,” which happens to be the song’s title. (Keating’s grandfather was a boxer as well.) But the words also resonate with the trio’s current state. Yeasayer is a group making a way for itself, whether that means genre experimentation or signing 300 CD inserts on the floor of Keating’s South Park Slope apartment while a writer fires questions at them.
Yeasayer’s acclaimed debut, All Hour Cymbals, recorded in the basement below Keating’s apartment, landed the group at the forefront of what some termed the “neotribal” movement. Marked by inaudible lyrics, chanting and primitive rhythms, the disc put Yeasayer on the indie map and earned the group an early tour with MGMT. After one show on that stretch, in February 2008, this concertgoer was convinced Yeasayer had won the night and was about to break into the mainstream.
It didn’t exactly happen that way. “We are not gonna be MGMT,” Keating says, deeming All Hour Cymbals a niche album. “We are not that. On that tour we were joking: 'Can we open up for you at Madison Square Garden?’ ”
MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden offers a new read on the relationship. “[Odd Blood] is very different from the first album,” he says by telephone from Brooklyn. “For our new album, there are no preprogrammed beats—any element of electronica is gone. They’ve gone the opposite direction. Maybe it’ll be us opening up for them at Madison Square Garden.”
Driving with bassist Ira Wolf Tuton from the band’s practice space in Williamsburg to Park Slope, through Brooklyn’s various multicultural neighborhoods, one can easily view Yeasayer as an exemplary Brooklyn band. Its new record incorporates some worldly beats (chants are there too, as on “Madder Red”). But it is, at its core, an accessible dance production: The organic gives way to the electronic. “We wanted to have a lot more clarity in the production and separation amongst the tones,” Tuton says, “not just sit on our laurels as that 'vocal tribal hippie band from Brooklyn.’ ”
Odd Blood succeeds on that front, unleashing disco head-boppers like “O.N.E.” and “Love Me Girl,” a style expanded upon when Keating takes the stage in the manner of a gangly Freddie Mercury. The album was recorded in veteran drummer Jerry Marotta’s home studio in Woodstock, New York, allowing for new tricks. Multi-instrumentalist Anand Wilder notes Marotta’s vintage synth collection—“synths that you can get at Main Drag [music store] for, like, 5,000 bucks,” he jokes.
Yeasayer is bound together by that sense of humor. Sitting on Keating’s floor scrawling names on hundreds of inserts, Keating, Tuton and Wilder personalize many copies as members of Cream, the Police, Green Day and other trios: Keating signs Eric Clapton, Tuton goes for Jack Bruce and Wilder Ginger Baker...and on and on. “That person is gonna be pissed!” Tuton notes of a prospective consumer who will get the Red Hot Chili Peppers (with me supplying Chad Smith’s autograph, completing the foursome). It’s easy to see why former drummer Luke Fasano was dropped. “He just wasn’t one of us,” Tuton confirms.
The fact that their John Hancocks could be Krist Novoselics that night is further evidence of the band’s far-flung musical tastes. In the van, Tuton tunes in to Hot 97. (VanWyngarden hears similarities on Odd Blood: “I like that they’re influenced by early-’90s R&B and dance music, because I don’t think many people are attacking that creative realm right now.”)
Tuton also demonstrates a Marty Markowitz--level knowledge of the borough, a feat for a native Philadelphian. Keating and Wilder are from Baltimore—they met long ago in school, and Keating’s cousin is married to Tuton’s sister—but they all categorically consider themselves to be a Brooklyn band. With all the fuss being made about a “Brooklyn sound,” Yeasayer views it more simply: “No other community embraced us at all,” Keating says. With the release of Odd Blood, Yeasayer should ready itself for that community to expand, exponentially.