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Yeasayer: Fragrant World
Note to all musicians: never feed music journalists' expectations of what your highly anticipated new album is going to sound like. If the end result doesn't give them exactly what you promised, you'll pay for it dearly. Point in case: Fragrant World, the latest effort by American indie rockers, Yeasayer. The band teased the music press with their ambition to create a 'demented R&B' record, and the end result is getting panned for not delivering on that promise. Fragrant World can be called a lot of things, but 'demented R&B' is certainly not one of them.
After the release of their second album Odd Blood, Yeasayer were unanimously crowned the new kings of the independent music world. The album was fresh, daring, creative, adventurous and unpredictable. It was pretty much every hipster's wet dream come to life in ten songs. Yeasayer single-handedly recreated 80's music to what it would sound like in the 21st century.
Needless to say, Odd Blood was an album that would be difficult to match, let alone surpass, and expectations for its successor were sky high. The first track released from Fragrant World, ‘Henrietta’, got a lukewarm response, beginning with an upbeat disco tune that gets overpowered by melancholic undertones. It's an ok song, but nothing we haven't heard from Brooklyn bands before.
The first official single ‘Longevity’ is a much slower song, structured on a hip hop shuffle, interrupted by a wailing synth and distorted strings; but again, nothing mind blowing.
Odd Blood was already a big step away from the psychedelic sounds of their debut album All Hour Cymbals; now Yeasayer seem to have completely traded in the guitars for a set of vintage synthesizers, which makes Fragrant World sound darker, almost gloomier, than its predecessor – especially on the aforementioned song ‘Henrietta’, the track ‘Demon Road’ and album closers ‘Folk Hero Schtick’ and ‘Glass Of The Microscope’.
Most songs lack hooks and many parts of Fragrant World sound forced and artificial, to genuinely surprise. The unpredictable outbursts, bordering on sheer musical genius, which were prevalent in Odd Blood, are sorely missed. Fragrant World almost sounds like a step back, or rather a collection of B-sides that never made it onto Odd Blood. It's as if Fragrant World should have been the second album and Odd Blood the logical progression after it.
Had this actually been Yeasayer's second album, all would have been fine. This is the downfall of a band trying to follow-up a flawless album. Ask Radiohead or Pearl Jam, they know all about it. It's like having a Mars bar after devouring a piece of the finest Swiss chocolate; it's certainly not bad, but it pales in comparison to what you had before.
Knowing what Yeasayer are musically capable of, this record unfortunately leaves the listener feeling that something smells a little off in their fragrant world; it will not turn the naysayers into yeasayers.
In eleven songs, they built a unique sound that you couldn't quite put your finger on: slow beats dressed in austerity, accompanied by enigmatic lyrics and lone wondering guitars. With a Mercury music prize under their belt and almost every music critic at their feet, they started work on their sophomore album.
But overall, this album is much less introverted. Both Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim seem to have gained confidence as singers and hone their vocal skills with more conviction then they did on their debut album.
Beatmaster Jamie xx, having built a very solid reputation as a producer in between the creation of the two albums, also steps closer to the limelight on this record. Even more songs than on the debut album are built on beats instead of a guitar riff and those beats are slightly more experimental than they previously were. There is even some steel drum - certainly not the hippest of instruments - seeping through in ‘Reunion’.
You've got to love Kurt Vile. Whether or not you like his songs or general aesthetics, no one can deny that he has mastered the ‘like, I’m just an ordinary dude’ artistic ethos exceptionally well. And not only has he been able to carry that grungy/punk torch into the modern world of indie music, he’s been able to do it as himself; a solo guy, a ‘singer-songwriter’, in a time when the very notion of such is enough to make one cringe.
On Wakin on a Pretty Daze, not much has changed since Vile released his debut album with Matador Records, Childish Prodigy, back in 2009. Vile is still creating acoustic guitar, ‘singer-songwriter’ songs punctuated with beautiful guitar lines and lazy but seductive melodies. Vile’s also still singing half-pedestrian/half-stoned-out lyrics about the people he meets, the bars he frequents, the planet he lives on, or the squalor of his apartment that tend to turn everyday banalities and words into epic events – at least in the eyes of a stoner.
Comparing Childish Prodigy’s lead single ‘He’s Alright’ with Pretty Daze’s ‘Wakin of a Pretty Day', it’s clear that Vile’s still trying to say: “Hey Guys. Chill out. Life’s alright. If I can do, it you can do it – right? Oh, yeah, and thanks for listening.”
There’s an instant soothing that comes from Vile’s sound; especially in Cairo, when one has to hop into a car twice a day to join the static rush hour traffic – it’s the perfect music to zone out to.
But unlike many of his contemporaries, Vile is a slow burning candle. Even before his debut album, the songs he released were pretty similar just with lower production quality. In a recent interview, Vile explained that “I know what to do to become the next big thing, but I have no interest in doing that. I want to do this my whole life.” The slow and subtle evolution of Vile’s albums – noticeable to probably only the most voracious listeners – is testament to this.
However, this desire to just cruise through his career on his own terms removes that element of surprise and heavy experimentation from Vile’s work that would really help make it stand out album to album. But at the same time, this aesthetic loyalty is also a large part of his charm.
Therefore, as a result, none of the albums really have any peaks, or troughs, and Pretty Daze is no different.
The entire album is one long, approximately 70 minute, beautiful moment, but there are no real fireworks, no explosive flashes. Stand out tracks are certainly the opener and title track, ‘Wakin on a Pretty Day’, as it sweeps the listener off their feet straight away and plunges them into the world of Kurt Vile.
Another notable track is ‘Shame Chamber’ which uses a steady head-nodding groove in order to bouncily deliver lyrics about mankind’s shortcomings as a finger pointing, shame inducing species. “Shame on you, shame on me, and shame on us, for feeling bad in the best way,” says Vile.
But as said, there are no money shots on Pretty Daze, only one long smooth, sensual session. Pretty Daze has also arrived just in time for spring, when hopefully, the daze that Cairenes have come to wake up to becomes a little brighter.
'Henrietta', 'Fingers Never Bleed', 'Longevity'
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