Sept. 1, 2012
Fox Theater, Oakland
Better than: Seeing Animal Collective (seriously -- deal with it).
If you (like I) missed the memo, Yeasayer has apparently become a divisive act. After 2010's Odd Blood brought the experimental Brooklynites widespread acclaim, last month's Fragrant World seems to have critics and fans taking sides. Pitchfork calls it "limited," while SPIN proudly displays it among the "Worst New Music" on its homepage.
The truth, as usual, is probably somewhere in the middle. Fragrant World may have gotten a less positive reception from some critics than Odd Blood, but by no means is it a bad listening experience. If anything, these reviews are likely a case of unmet expectations. On its new album, Yeasayer didn't go back to the well and reproduce the sounds that helped the band breakthrough in the first place.
The increasing diversity of Yeasayer's sound was crystal clear throughout the band's Saturday night set at The Fox. Electronic music will always be difficult to reproduce live (Washed Out notably speaks about the live experience as if it's another act entirely). But the sage show only accentuated what's new and appealing about Fragrant World, and brought the album's genre-tweaking ways into clearer relief.
On new single, "Henrietta," Yeasayer slows down the main hook. The distinctive electronic voicing sounds more like a steel drum, and when combined with the new tempo gives things an entirely different feel. It's more a peer of UB40 than Animal Collective, yacht rock where docks and ports are electronic instead of nautical.
This is merely the first place Yeasayer takes an audience within the same set. A medley of "Don't Come Close" with "Madder Red" allows the band to tap into ballad territory. Chris Keating channels his inner Chris Martin (in the coolest way possible -- imagine this is what it was like to see Coldplay before cynicism attacked them), scaling various onstage amps and encouraging an audience singalong for the latter's wordless chorus.
There's the reggae portion of the evening, with a relaxed-tempo "Longevity;" and guitarist Anand Wilder even appeases the rock purists with a screaming solo during "Folk Hero Shtick." Since the band is typically tagged as "electronic," a dancehall scene inevitably breaks out. The only politics of "Reagan's Skeleton" is a call to move. Bass and percussion come to the forefront, and the tempo swings the opposite way this time, as nearby audience members look at each other to mouth, "Jamiroquai?" You'd be hard pressed to find anyone standing still at this point.
In addition to a wider reach, this live show comes with another big change in comparison to the tour following Odd Blood. Yeasayer has big venue-ready toys this time. The band enters the stage in relative darkness, as automated voices welcome the city and beams of light dart everywhere until a large one comes on to bathe the audience. You half-expect the band to rise out of the floor in those distinctive Daft Punk helmets.
But after the intro you can see the band and its major visual setpiece: a giant, rock face-esque marriage of geometry and lights. It's somewhat reminiscent of an off-kilter Aggro Crag for '90s scholars (perhaps a portion of the future council's lair in Bill & Ted, if you prefer '80s studies). The prop plays videos and goes through light patterns, with various neon colors along its hard edges. As a friend puts it, "Come for the light show, stay for the music."
With the newness of Fragrant World and the nature of music discourse, the consensus opinion has yet to be determined. Its legacy is TBD. But one thing about the new songs of Yeasayer is certain: They all translate well live, and make for one hell of an evening. Bad reviews be damned.
A concert first: Speaking of genre-bending, those who worry that finding a new sound is impossible should sample Daughn Gibson. The vocalist looks and sounds like a classic country singer: clean cut hair, a regimented two-step dance move, a lip snarl like Elvis. But while his voice makes it clear Gibson listened to plenty of Johnny Cash, the overall music gets much more complicated. Programmed drum beats and electronic piano voicings seem to be in direct contrast with the man's strengths, but the whole package comes off as an engaging juxtaposition. Classic country-electro, look out. (Try "In the Beginning" to see for yourself)
Alternate interpretations: One friend's best description of Yeasayer's new stage prop: a deconstructed paper fortune teller. "Pick a number Anand"
Setlist after the jump