May 26, 2011
Better Than: Every other afternoon set at the Pitchfork Music Festival
Indie-rock bands like Yeasayer are a dime a dozen on the modern touring circuit. Feel like augmenting the typical guitar, bass, and drums with a few synthesizers and modulators? Want to write a well-crafted record full of psych or drone guitars over syncopated dance beats and then tour the crap out of those now-beloved songs? Congratulations: You might be the xx, Sleigh Bells, Warpaint, or any number of blog-friendly alt-pop outfits.
As such, expectations for a double feature of the Smith Westerns and Yeasayer, two bands who abide by the aforementioned "formula for moderate stardom," didn't exceed a complacent "well, they'll probably be pretty good." In the case of the Smith Westerns, this predetermined judgment was absolutely accurate. The band's sound was mediocre until midway through the set, when somebody figured out that the swelling, punchy lead guitar should actually be high in the mix, and the songs were all pleasant, but uninspiring. From the way they were dressed to the way they slowly swayed across the stage, the members of the Smith Westerns looked like an amateur garage band flung into sudden underground recognition. They were earnest, enjoyable, and ultimately forgettable.
Where the Smith Westerns fell short, though, Yeasayer excelled. Somewhere in the process of growing from a band influenced heavily by Middle Eastern spiritualist psych-rock into one more adept at progressive electronic singalongs, Yeasayer gained a swagger that many of its indie counterparts overlook. Frontman Chris Keating's voice transformed from the unstable glam wail heard on many Yeasayer recordings into a full-bodied stronghold, rising crisply on tracks like "Tightrope" and "Ambling Alp."
Meanwhile, guitarist Anand Wilder's riffs were intentionally exaggerated, forcing listeners to notice the guitar's presence as a driving melodic force rather than allowing it to interact subtly as it would on the band's heavily produced studio material. These two elements coalesced most successfully on the dark, new-wave-y track "Henrietta," an unreleased song expected to appear on the band's next record. Wilder and bassist Ira Wolf Tuton exchanged equally energetic riffs that, for a few minutes, turned Yeasayer into a Duran Duran soundalike in all the best ways.
Another veteran move came with Yeasayer's decision to largely ditch the nebulous, harmonic psych of its debut, All Hour Cymbals, in favor of the more expressive dance-rock of Odd Blood. Sunny anthems like "O.N.E." and "Rome" were met with hip-shuffling fan approval, while tracks like the slower, ethereal "Wait for Summer" seemed to drag in comparison.
This judgment was missed dearly in the band's two song encore, which included an uneventful new track tentatively titled "Demon Road" and the band's first hit, "2080." While the former was a puzzling choice for an encore, the band's live treatment of the latter was an even more egregious misstep. Where the album version glistens through falsetto harmonies and a sweeping, calculated guitar hook, the live version removed the guitar line from the chorus, and relied more heavily on Keating's lower register rather than on the well-constructed harmonies. In this way, the band's most recognizable song turned into a lackluster finale where "Ambling Alp," the main set's concluding track, could have been more effective.
Even considering these low points, Yeasayer proved to be an impressive live band with veteran touring tendencies. The ability to sell out two nights at the Fillmore was a tribute to the passionate fan base it has steadily acquired. If the hypnotic live groove of tracks like "O.N.E." is any indication of things to come, Yeasayer could easily see a meteoric rise to fame over the course of its next record or two. As it stands, Yeasayer is a band that doesn't inspire high expectations, but takes pleasure in exceeding them in a well-rehearsed, sonically stimulating manner.
Not to Be Overlooked: One man opening band Hush Hush may have played for a crowd of only fifty, but left an inspiring impression on those early arrivers. The solo armada recalled Dan Auerbach (of the Black Keys) after five drinks putting Justin Timberlake instrumentals on an iPod and getting down to jams about sex parties ("Me fucking you, fucking him, fucking her, fucking me"), bodily fluids, and guys who aren't bummed out about their girlfriends' periods. And that's just the stuff that wasn't too derogatory to print.
See more photos of Yeasayer @ the Fillmore here.