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by: Bill Dvorak - April 7, 2008

The members of Brooklyn’s Yeasayer see through the smoky haze of the freak-folk scene with alarming clarity. They’ve taken those primal rhythms and chants and placed them in a more urgent context, combining them with psychedelic Middle Eastern strings and ominous choral sweeps to fashion songs both entrancing and unnerving. After generating a national buzz from their South by Southwest appearance last year, they’ve rapidly grown in popularity, dropped a debut album, and embarked on an international tour. The key to their sudden success? Borrowing from almost everything, yet sounding like nothing you’ve heard before.

There’s a subtle power to the 11 songs that complete All Hour Cymbals behind the lush veneer of instrumental flourishes and haunting melodies is an undercurrent of desperation and fear that resonates in the often tortured vocals of Chris Keating. On �” he sings, “I can’t sleep when I think about the times we’re living in/I can’t sleep when I think about the future I was born into.” While the song’s chorus exudes a more optimistic hope for the future, its overall climate is apocalyptic -- a milieu that seems to permeate the album in both form and content.

According to Keating, the ominous undertones emerged as a result of the recent social and political climate.

“We started the project in the wake of the second Bush election,” he told The Deli. “It seemed so bleak, so apocalyptic. All these menacing figures running the country…but at the same time it seemed obvious that these jokers running the country were doomed to fail. We are witnessing the end of the Right Wing revolution that began with Reagan, so that is where the hopeful side of the record takes hold.”

Yeasayer’s politics, however, are lyrically subtle. Keating doesn’t smack you over the head with his gripes, and the otherworldly quality of the music makes for an experience that transcends any current political issue. Perhaps that’s why political ideas work here the ambiguous lyrics and music allow you to soak in and interpret the album’s themes without feeling preached to.

“I've always been interested in music that makes a political statement,” Keating recalls. “I grew up listening to the Clash, Phil Ochs, and Jimmy Cliff. It is incredibly difficult to pull off sincere political commentary in a song, but when it works, I find it to be extremely powerful.”

In attempting to relate their uncertainty over humanity’s future, the members of Yeasayer have crafted a sound that transcends current indie-rock trends and pulls from seemingly divergent sources like psychedelia, pop, aboriginal chants, gospel and even African Chimurenga music (check out the Thomas Mapfumo MySpace page to hear what inspired that �” guitar sound). Throw in a slight fixation on 70’s folk-rock a la Fleetwood Mac (play Fleetwood Mac’s “Never Going Back Again” and then Yeasayer’s “Wait for the Summer”), and you’re close to the hybrid of polyrhythmic percussion, psych-pop and unique instrumental interplay that characterizes these musical Exoticists.

“This record was very much a collage of sounds and textures, disparate musical styles that we wanted to merge together in a pop format,” Keating observes. “That idea became the concept behind the aesthetics of the record. We didn't want to make a ‘world music’ record, but we wanted to include many of the influences that we had from outside the western musical canon. The whole concept basically became that nothing was off limits.”

On paper, this may sound like a recipe for disaster too many ideas packed into 11 songs could make for some obnoxiously ostentatious music -- yet somehow, Yeasayer succeeds in maintaining a cohesive sound that feels surprisingly original. The songs all tap into a far off, mystical realm, yet remain firmly grounded in melody. In fact, when asked if Yeasayer is, at heart, a pop band, Keating agrees.

“Pop music has always been the foremost influence on our music,” he says. “I love hooks and melodies that get stuck in my head. I'm way more influenced by Sean Paul or The Neptunes than Sonic Youth. This is not to say that we also don't like to experiment.”

Indeed, the album is also marked by moments of experimental discordance and sonic intensity. On tracks like “Wait for the Wintertime,” bare-bones guitar sludge and primordial vocals merge with shimmering atmospherics to induce near-hallucinations. The songs also employ a clever use of space. On “Sunrise,” the drop-out of the bass towards the end of the song creates an almost weightless feel that, when coupled with slow rising vocal hymns, evokes an almost spiritual quality.

Keating says this ethereal sound was the result of the band’s early passion for Mapfumo records. “I found a Blacks Unlimited record in a library and was instantly mesmerized by Thomas Mapfumo's voice,” Keating recalls. “It was incredibly beautiful, powerful music. From there I found some of his other records…and began to learn more Chimurenga music. I think that the sounds of those records were very inspirational for us in the early days of the band, the looping vocals and the amazing guitar tone in particular.”

According to Keating, the recording process for their ambitious sound also involved a great deal of commitment. “It was actually quite painstaking,” he says. “We just didn't have any money to make the record that we wanted to make, so we spent a few days in the studio in Baltimore and then months and months recording vocals and overdubs at my house in Brooklyn. We had to learn [the software program] Pro-Tools and everything, so the process was pretty slow and exhausting.”

One of the most noticeable aspects of the Yeasayer aesthetic is the percussion. Gone is the standard drum kit that has characterized rock bands for so long in its place are West African-like tribal stomps, handclaps and cascading rhythms.
“There are all these conventions that you just take for granted, and the setup of the drum kit is one of the most glaring examples of this, so we've made a conscious effort to play some different rhythms on our songs,” Keating explains.

Even for those who may not have been completely floored by All Hour Cymbals, Yeasayer’s success can be seen as a sign that the garage-rock and indie-pop that’s dominated so much of New York’s music scene in recent years is making room for something new. The crop of more recent bands that are taking risks -- favoring dense layers of texture, ambience and nuance over straight-ahead rock (like Grizzly Bear, A Place to Bury Strangers, the Dirty Projectors) -- is on the rise, and Yeasayer’s brand of self-described “Middle-Eastern psych-pop/snap-gospel,” is an integral part of this new musical order.

“I really respect a lot of the bands that are pushing the envelope,” Keating says. “I was blown away by Grizzly Bear's live show I think Animal Collective are a startlingly progressive sounding band. It does seem as if people are getting excited about experimental music again and getting away from that garage-rock revival stuff of the late 90's.”

Nonetheless, Keating -- with a sense of foreboding characteristic of Yeasayer -- is quick to point out that the future of independent music is still uncertain. He points to a year much closer than 2080 for this prediction. “I'm already anticipating the garage rock revival of early 2010,” he jokes.


“We just didn't have any money to make the record that we wanted to make, so we spent a few days in the studio in Baltimore and then months and months recording vocals and overdubs at my house in Brooklyn. We had to learn [the software program] Pro-Tools and everything, so the process was pretty slow and exhausting.”

"All Hour Cymbals"

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what it is

Psychedelic freak folk with Middle Eastern influences?