Album Review: Ya Tseen – Indian Yard

[Sub Pop; 2021]

When researching Nicholas Galanin, a formidable figure presents itself: the Alaskan is an Indigenous activist (he’s of Tlingit/Unangax descent), a visual artist, a musician, always working, always pushing himself to explore and eradicate boundaries. That visual art strand has already gained considerable traction through his piece for the 2020 Sydney Biennale, “Shadow on the Land”, which dug a grave round the shadow cast by a statue of Captain Cook. Although he’s been making music under various monikers before (Silver Jackson, Indian Agent), he joined with Sub Pop to release Indian Yard under the name Ya Tseen; perhaps, he feels, that it’s his time to push to the forefront in another artistic field.

Galanin worked on the songs which form Indian Yard over the space of three years, in several different locations (New York, Lake Como, Seattle, Alaska). He shared the concepts with bandmates Zak D. Wass and Otis Calvin III, and together they collaborated to build the album alongside longtime collaborator Benjamin Verdoes. It doesn’t stop there though, for the record is heaving with collaborations. Fellow Alaskans Portugal. The Man help out on the opening track “Knives”; old friends and labelmates Shabazz Palaces provide lyrics in “Synthetic Gods”, and many others assist elsewhere.

It’s “Knives” that is the most infectious and bubbly offering here, while the rest of the album that follows it adheres to a slimmer sonic palette. Songs like “Light the Torch”, the swooning R&B track “Born into Rain”, and “A Feeling Undefined” are melancholic and mellow, light but never surfacing fully. Some of it, in this way, blends too well. He’s clearly trying to provide fluidity as a creator between genres, but often it shows itself to be too slight.

Much of the album is sultry and seductive, pulsating with sex and lust in songs like the soulful “Close The Distance” and the smooth funk of “Get Yourself Together”. In this way, it commits the same act that serpentwithfeet recently did, just showing normative acts of love and desire as visualised through a minority’s perspective.

The last three tracks of Indian Yard are enhanced through their collaborations. Distinct rappers – the aforementioned Shabazz Palaces, Stas THEE Boss, Tay Sean, and Qacung – provide ample and powerful support for the bassline rhythm. “Back in That Time”, featuring Qacung, is particularly intriguing, almost alluring in its dense eeriness.

Perhaps, given Galanin’s much-vaunted artistic background, some might have been expecting a more overtly political album, more striking, more loud in its convictions. But, one feels, he’s provoking liberation through assimilation: Indian Yard might be busy with collaborations, yes, but he’s emphasising that he belongs in their varied company; it’s political by just being.

With Indian Yard, there’s a feeling we might not yet know the full identity of Ya Tseen, but a future release without such reliance on partnerships will surely enlighten. There’s enough thoughtful layering and earnest emotion (“At Tugáni” is where he shows this most, notably in a song named after his son) in Indian Yard to merit further exploration.