You’ve got to admire Yeasayer’s sense of challenge. With each new record, the Brooklyn band has delved into music that is more and more difficult to reproduce live. The latest, this month’s Fragrant World, marks the culmination. There’s no track as anthemic as “Ambling Alp”, nothing so breezily universal as “2080” or “Wait for the Summer”. The album’s 49 minutes are packed instead with queasy production filters and intoxicating synths. As guitarist Anand Wilder told The Village Voice, “Everybody’s heard a guitar playing a riff, but if it’s a weird backwards flute playing a riff, that’s just a little bit more interesting.” True enough, but it’s hardly fodder for a live quartet.
That they’ve managed to translate such ornate arrangements to the stage — with only minimal use of drum loops and prerecorded tracks — is admirable enough. That they’ve rendered the songs livelier and warmer in the process is a different triumph entirely. Co-written by Wilder and Chris Keating, Fragrant World sounds like two geeks camped out behind laptops and samplers. But at MHOW, Yeasayer sounded like four guys playing music — and nailing their own jungle-dense arrangements — to a packed room.
Show opener “Henrietta” made for a fitting gateway drug. It’s Fragrant’s premier single, and though the album won’t hit stores for another few days, the track’s already a hot commodity in concert, stirring a sharp round of approving cheers. The thick, fade-in funk of the opening verses is about as immediate as Fragrant World gets. Onstage, Wilder smoothly dispatched the song’s shimmering synths in favor of a wah-wah guitar lead; touring drummer Jason Trammell twisted the song’s percussive programming into a gripping funk workout. Keating, front and center, slithered between his synth setup and microphone erratically, grinning wildly — apparently as impatient for the mid-song buildup as the rest of us.
It was a homecoming gig for the Brooklynites, timely enough to warrant a YouTube live stream. (“I guess this is an internet show, whatever the fuck that means,” Keating observed. “People are watching in Poland. What up, Poland!”) Fittingly — but also daringly — the group placed the focus on its new material, tackling eight of Fragrant World’s 11 tracks, plus the non-album title track. “Henrietta” set the tone for the band’s approach to these new songs. The strategy, in short: dismantle the disembodied MIDI arrangements, replace many of the synth lines with Wilder’s impossibly processed lead guitar, throw in a preset keyboard pad or sample where needed (“Fragrant World”, “Demon Road”), and strip down the gluttonous voice filters (“Folk Hero Shtick” sounded much better without it). The secret weapon was Trammell’s drumming — propulsive and restless enough to liven up a track as plodding as Wilder’s “Blue Paper”. (That glitchy breakdown at the end sounded funky rather than goofy for once.)
These songs are nothing if not rehearsed, and it was exhilarating, even visually, to watch the energy and coordination required to make them click. On “Longevity”, Wilder moved swiftly between guitar and synth to nail the orchestral flairs towards the end. On “Demon Road”, which sounds like a freakier “O.N.E.” update, Ira Wolf Tuton led the way with slippery bass groans, then joined Keating and Wilder for a thrilling three-part harmony during the chorus. Ever the frontman, Wilder shifted frantically between instruments and stage poses.
From Odd Blood the group blitzed through “Madder Red”, “Ambling Alp” (a raucous singalong at this point), and the infectious “O.N.E.” — predictable picks, but welcome triumphs. The latter was nearly unrecognizable. Wilder and co. recast the electro-pop banger as a steady, funk-driven groove — all live drums and bass — and Keating grinned when the crowd picked up on his ruse. Together, the songs made Odd Blood seem shockingly poppy compared to how you might remember it (all together now: “Stick up for yourself, son!”), but so goes selection bias.
As for All Hour Cymbals: only “2080” made the cut. It sounded comfortable, perhaps effortless for a band rehearsing stuff as thick and tangled “Demon Road”, but hardly obligatory. Other class of ’07 staples, like “Sunrise” and “Wait for the Summer”, got the axe. They’ve been absent from set lists since the tour began, dropped to make room for headier terrain. Maybe they’ll be back. Or maybe in five years we’ll say the same about “Henrietta”.
Don’t Come Close
Devil and the Deed
Fingers Never Bleed
Folk Hero Shtick