Yeasayer’s first album, All Hour Cymbals, was released almost three years ago. They’ve had all that time to conceive, write and record their follow-up album. And while this doesn’t exactly make for an exciting narrative, Yeasayer have taken that time to record an expansive and detailed follow-up, in nearly every way an improvement over their debut. The band has suddenly emerged with a fully-formed identity, no longer treading water through hazy atmospherics obscuring hesitant songwriting. If there’s a common idea binding this album, it’s confidence: the lead single is even an inspirational trope. There’s no more fog, the vocals are bravely up front, and the tempos are noticeably higher, approaching danceable.
For all its supposed clarity, Odd Blood is a disarmingly busy album, astonishingly layered and meticulously constructed. There’s so much going on here that aside from the occasional guitar riff it’s difficult to figure out the origins of its multitude of sounds. This confluence of autonomous-sounding electronic noises is bound to garner comparisons to Merriweather Post Pavilion (especially in the tripped-out jaunt of “Ambling Alp” or the alien balladry of “I Remember”), but Yeasayer’s tumult is elaborate rather than that band’s casual messiness. It might be nigh impossible to figure out where the band is coming from, but there’s a learned calculatedness at work, and the songs positively brim with energy, barely containing themselves in their tightly written frameworks; even a slow song like “Strange Reunions” feels like it’s running in place, bursting at its seams with potential energy.
Odd Blood is a compact and carefully sequenced record with a clear division between ‘side one’ and ‘side two.‘ Listen with your imagination and the sequencing even provides a pseudo-narrative with discernible emotional peaks and valleys. Getting past the slightly unsettling opener “The Children,” the first half of the record is vibrant and inviting: first single “Ambling Alp” really gets things started off in earnest. It’s a restless track that never stays in one place for too long and its rather overt lyrics are easier to swallow when they’re surrounded by all this glittery colour. It’s a difficult sound to describe, but it hits all the pleasure centres: buzzes, whirs, chimes, rings, irresistible melodies and most noticeably relentless percussion work in unison to create a surprisingly approachable tempest. The entire album exhibits a newfound focus on percussion, in no small part thanks to the presence of two new drummers replacing former member Luke Fasano.
“Madder Red” tones things down to a certain degree, with a more subdued, autumnal sound and a dreamy vocal melody, grounded by startling squalls of distorted guitar and even a few riffs here and there. It’s one of the songs where lead vocalists Anand Wilder and Chris Keating harmonize frequently, but not as on All Hour Cymbals; where that album’s harmonies were hastily arranged to the point of obscuring individual identity, these are carefully layered and and crystal clear. The song is, once again, complex — twisting and turning with a vague structure, more like a relentless series of hook after hook than any traditional structure. The tempo slows even further for the woozy ballad “I Remember,” layering sparkly synths over rumbling bass, occasionally picking up speed and lapsing back into slow-dance territory, replete with a dinky toy piano. All of this provides the perfect bed for Chris Keating’s majestic vocal, somewhere between loftily maudlin and uncomfortably honest. “O.N.E.” is the energetic high of the album, with clattering percussion recalling the Miami Sound Machine and Wilder’s elastic, sugary and playful vocals evoking Collins-era Genesis. It’s the track that sticks out the most on Odd Blood and probably its most impressive achivement; for the most part, it’s simply a pop song but it’s done so expertly it’s hard to call it anything less than admirable.
The second half announces its commencement abruptly with the frantic and lengthy instrumental intro to “Love Me Girl,” which is in every respect the bizarro “Ambling Alp” — a similarly unpredictable structure but now dark and murky, even sinister, with distorted and stretched vocals careening unpredictably around in a feverish whirlwind. There’s even a faux-western breakdown that lasts for about four seconds! The second side as a whole focuses on the funkier, subversive side of things; “Rome” is a bizarre slice of indie-funk, like a Phoenix track with a slowed-down vocal (and chipmunk harmonies to boot); “Strange Reunions” recalls the Far East kitsch of All Hour Cymbals, only tasteful, and the cascading vocals shimmer and glow like a desert oasis. The band makes an awkward attempt at TV On The Radio-style funk-rock with “Mondegreen,” marred by unfortunate-sounding horns and an unpleasant chorus. It’s the closest thing on Odd Blood to a mistake, but there are still things to enjoy hidden deep within its recesses and its fantastic outro. Closer “Grizelda” pulls the album completely off the deep end into the abyss, the plaintive melody and sweetly-sung vocals disguising surprisingly morbid lyrics: “There’s a whisper inside of her brain telling me who to kill/Telling me who will live.” It’s a suitably demented (and oddly comforting) close to a fickle, twitchy album, an album that never leaves you quite where you expect it to.
Odd Blood is an out-and-out triumph. Its execution approaches perfection, and its all-encompassing vision is stupefying, even terrifying in its scope. It would take innumerable listens and an undying devotion to fully dissect these songs; every go-around reveals new sounds and dimensions, and while the album admittedly sounds like the product of computers it’s also warm and human: these bizarre sound sculptures tell of archetypal romantic tales (and some other bizarre but undeniably human subjects), and the newly confident and polished vocals form an easy initial grasping point. Some of the production flourishes are impossibly deft — it’s hard to imagine that a group of mere human beings could methodically create these hyperactive monoliths of sound. The ridiculous percussion in “O.N.E.,” the manipulated vocals all over “Grizelda,” the backwards harmonies and the eighties Linn-esque drums on “Strange Reunions,” the cavalcade of samples on “Ambling Alp,” the insistent percussion breaks between verses in “I Remember” are all wonderful touches that never cease to impress, every single time. For who are supposedly an “indie rock” band, Yeasayer are remarkably adept at incorporating pop and hip-hop influences into their music: wielding a sampler like no other and writing confoundingly catchy melodies, the sheer impressiveness of this record can be exhausting. Even the sequencing is expert: if the second half feels like a downer after the sensory overload of its first half, it soon reveals itself to be of immeasurable depth. All of this might seem a bit hyperbolic, but an album like this is designed — nay, engineered — to produce this sort of reaction. It deserves nothing less.