Since 2007, Brooklyn Trio Yeasayer Has Crafted Diverse Albums That Range From One Extreme to Another

SF Weekly

music2-bcb699e3c706a9eeWhat do you do when your parents leave town? You throw a party — duh. That’s what Tom Cruise did in Risky Businessand what Kid ‘n Play did in House Party. When the parents of one of the members of the indie-pop trio Yeasayer left town in 2006, the band took over their Baltimore house, too.

But they didn’t throw a party.

Instead, they turned the living room into a makeshift recording studio. Using a Blue microphone borrowed from a friend, they “spent a week down there just experimenting and probably thinking we were a lot more professional and knowledgeable about recording than we were,” says bassist Ira Wolf Tuton.

Because the living room opened onto the kitchen, the “studio” was far from sound-proofed. The musicians had to repeatedly unplug the refrigerator because the mic they were using — “It was way too much for us to understand,” Tuton says — was so powerful it picked up the machine’s humming.

By the end of the week, the burgeoning group — who still worked side jobs while trying to make it in Brooklyn — had recorded four songs, including the drum-heavy polyrhythmic psychedelic-folk ballad “Sunrise,” which would eventually become the lead single on their 2007 debut album, All Hour Cymbals.

I first heard “Sunrise” in a trailer for a college-produced short film a friend appeared in. I wasn’t intrigued by the movie, but my ears perked up when I heard the song. I became a Yeasayer fan soon after that, devouring the band’s whimsical, ethnocentric debut with its myriad percussion instruments — cymbals, synthesizer, tribal drumming, hand clapping — falsetto cadences, and multi-part harmonies.

But “Sunrise”— and All Hour Cymbals as a whole — was misleading. By the time Yeasayer released its follow-up album, Odd Blood, in 2010, they’d already shifted gears, dropping their shimmery, gossamer, freak-folk sound for a pop-fueled indie-rock style, à la MGMT.

Fans and critics were disappointed. Whereas Pitchfork gave All Hour Cymbals a rating of 7.8, Odd Blood only received a 6.1. Reddit users partook in a now-63-comment chain to decry the band’s sonic change, with some people calling the album “seriously god awful” and “just all over the place.”

Then again, not everyone (including me) hated the album. In the same Reddit chain, fans hailed Odd Blood as “goddamn tasty” and “equally good.”

“I think our second album might have alienated some of our first-album fans,” Tuton says now, “but we definitely gained a whole new set of people, too.”

When Yeasayer released its third album, Fragrant World, two years later, they went through the same thing all over again because — guess what? — that record sounded different, too. More electronic and dance-focused than its predecessors, some people loved it and some people hated it. As for Pitchfork, they gave the album a 5.4 rating, writing that it “not only proves that Yeasayer can make an unremarkable song, but that they can make 11 of them in a row.” (To which Tuton responds: “Pitchfork doesn’t really like our band and they never really have.” I won’t argue with that.)

The trio, however, was unconcerned about alienating fans — and critics — with its always-in-flux sound. “The fans that have stuck with us understand the kind of band that we are,” Tuton says. “They know that we’re not going to recreate the magic in the bottle over and over again.”

In fact, not miring themselves in one style has become a sort of ethos for the band. Speaking on behalf of his bandmates, Tuton says they all feel it’s important to continually challenge themselves as musicians and producers by trying new things and picking up different skill sets.

“From the outset, that definitely was the goal,” he says. “That makes the experience an honest one, as opposed to trying to recreate some kind of time or genre or style that might have hit a zeitgeist in the past.”

Their latest album, Amen & Goodbye, is the longest endeavor yet. They worked on it over the course of four years, at first individually by writing songs on their own and then as a band when they booked a studio on a farm in upstate New York. If they left the door open, chickens would wander in, and, like the refrigerator in Baltimore, they had to contend with the hum of an electric fence outside. They incorporated exotic string instruments that were hanging on the walls of the studio into their recordings and even captured the sounds of a late summer rainstorm to weave into songs.

Unfortunately, that same rainstorm ended up creating a leak in the ceiling of the studio, flooding the control room and damaging the tape deck with its two finished reels of tape. Dejected, the band returned to New York City, where, for the first time ever, they hired a producer, Joey Waronker, former drummer for Beck and R.E.M., to help them take apart and recreate the entire album over another two and a half years.

The resulting 13-track record is Yeasayer’s most varied to date. Echoes of their previous albums can be heard, like in “Silly Me,” an electronic, ’80s dance groove reminiscent of Odd Blood, and the psychedelic-folk paean “Gerson’s Whistle,” which could have been plucked from All Hour Cymbals. Waronker also introduced the band to new techniques, such as mixing digital and analogue sounds, like live drumming over drum-machine beats, and employing oddball percussive tools, including rusty springs, chopsticks, and rattling wooden boxes.

Of course, not everyone was satisfied with Amen & Goodbye. Pitchfork slammed it with a 5.4 rating, calling it “mostly unsuccessful,” and labeling Yeasayer as “calculated trend hoppers rather than truly idiosyncratic personalities.”

No matter. In Tuton’s mind, “it would be a waste of time to focus on the positive or negative.”