Yeasayer are a jam band, they just aren't aware of it yet. At one point during the Brooklyn four-piece's set Saturday night at the Echoplex, lead singer Chris Keating even paused to extemporaneously inform the crowd that “people call us hippies, but that's just not true. We're from Baltimore.” This is arguably the worst ever defense of someone's lack of hippiness. C'mon, Yeasayer, you guys aren't fooling anyone. You went to the same private school as Animal Collective and granted, those guys might not be hippies in the classical sense, but they've clearly popped enough peyote to join several Native American tribes.
Moreover, take a look at the picture above and tell me that you disagree with Ian Cohen's assessment that Yeasayer look like they tried to dress as the Spin Doctors for Halloween but couldn't quite pull it off. Not to mention the fact that for the first fifteen minutes of their show, I was standing next to a greasy, dull-eyed, dead-ringer for Devendra Banhart. The guy smelled like he'd been guzzling rancid soy milk and rolling around in a patch of pachouli all afternoon. Fucking hippies.
Not like I blame Yeasayer for traveling the indie route, it's probably a smart move. Hell, the hippies and hipsters have been on a collision course since Phish broke up in 2004 and at last year's Bonnaroo, (the Wimbledon of the hippie jam circuit), over half the bands could've been classified as “indie rock.” So maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise that Yeasayer rep for the ever-growing sub-strata of indie bands that do drugs or at least look like they do (see also, Brightblack Morning Light, Black Mountain, Comets on Fire, and of course, the entire open-toed shoe freak-folk scene.)
Well, I Was Going To Make A “Two Princes” Joke Here, But Instead I Think We Should All Just Gaze In Awe and Horror At The Guy On the Left's Red Nipple Shirt
On record, Yeasayer's loopy, writhing, polyrhythmic jams work out quite well. Clocking in at just 46 minutes, the band's '07 debut, All Hour Rhythms conjures a sort of compressed majesty, an ephemeral opium-dream full of nervous Far East sitars, African drums, and wispy, choral harmonies. It's a big, epic-sounding record. The sort of thing you'd expect to hear at a yoga studio in Williamsburg. Take that how you will. Keating's lyrics blur into an almost unintelligible chant and you pretty much forget the fact that what's he's saying is some real hippy-dippy gibberish. Truth be told, these guys make The Klaxons sound like Aldous Huxley.
In person, these weak spots are hard to ignore. Songs that float like a lazy, sun-baked river on wax perpetually find their momentum halted by Keating's between-song rambles. At one point, the guy even hurled something into the audience, sparking a brief unenthusiastic war between the stage and the unimpressed crowd. The problem is that while the album shrouds the band in mystery, their live show reveals them to be a bunch of kids on their first national tour, who have neither mastered their instruments nor figured out how to work the crowd. Stripped of their studio wizardry, their Pro-Tools wall of sound felt attenuated and two-dimensional. Occasionally, it felt like watching Jethro Tull try to perform Phil Collins songs. Or Animal Collective doing songs for a Queen covers compilation. Or any number of the mediocre Robert Plant albums from the 80s.
Ultimately, it's this occupation of the middle ground that makes Yeasayer remind me most of The Spin Doctors. If you think about it, The Spin Doctors were the ultimate tweener band, hippie enough to get invited to the first H.O.R.D.E. Festival, , alternative enough to get played on 120 Minutes, and poppy enough to filter down to the Junior High set. And rest assured, “2080” is every bit as catchy as “Two Princes” or “Little Miss Can't Be Wrong.” (I think the statute of limitations has passed long enough for us to accept that these are great songs). But for them to move past being just another indie band riding the world music wave, Yeasayer are going to have to decide which direction they want to go in. Do they want to cultivate their inner weirdo and de-construct melodies to the point where no one likes them but music critics and art kids? Or will they retain their penchant for exploration while simultaneously finding their inner Garcia and letting their sound breathe? C'mon guys, go for it, there's no shame, add a second guitarist who can shred, be willing to embrace your inner…gasp…hippie. Because honestly, as lame as tie die is, it's still a thousand times cooler than red nipple shirts.