Contemporary heart

Yeasayer and Sleigh Bells open the present
By MICHAEL BRODEUR  |  April 27, 2010


Music is really just a form of time, so it makes sense that our many musics represent the many different ways we wrangle with this irritatingly linear mortal coil. Country — with its dead husbands, ex-wives, back taxes, and requisite lap-steel flourishes — is at its best when it’s dourly reckoning with its past. Meanwhile, hip-hop — with its ethos of “on and on” and its ever-breaking dawn — burns brightest when it props the past while storming the future. Folk folks seldom sweat their respective nextness, but DJs scrape the genre’s dried nectar from old records just to survive. Idiotic spurned-boyfriend gym rock, à la Nickelback: past-facing. Esoteric woofer-blowing dubstep: future-facing. Amy Winehouse: past. Lady Gaga (that was a trick — even Grace Jones has called this bitch out for stealing): past, past, past.

Since we’re destroying the planet, dreaming up the sound of the future now means imagining the dry howl of an unobstructed toxic wind. So it’s understandable that mining pop’s past has become a more optimistic route to the new than grappling with the future — or processing the present. This helps to explain 10 tentative years of recycled music that has pussyfooted into the future like a kid toeing a cold pool — from last decade’s electro-clash right up to last week’s chillwave. As a result, it’s become increasingly difficult to say what’s contemporary about . . . what’s contemporary. Savvy ticketholders to this Monday’s sold-out pairing of hyper-cyber-ballyhooed NYC acts Yeasayer and Sleigh Bells will get two very distinct versions of what right now sounds like — and neither is an easy sell.

For his part, Chris Keating of Yeasayer took pains to turn his band on their axis for Odd Blood (Secretly Canadian), the avant-pop five-piece’s relatively new second album. “I feel like the first record was rooted in the past with the way it sounded,” he tells me over the phone. “We were referencing Alan Lomax recordings, ambient music from the ’70s, African guitar music, film soundtracks. This time, it was an exciting idea just to try and have a dialogue with contemporary music.”

To do this, they took to the hills, isolating themselves in a small studio built into a cottage in the Catskills, and restricting themselves to the sweet sounds of synthesis. Odd Blood runs warm with the stuff of its name — like a cross-section of decades’ worth of one-hit wonders, it draws randomly from an unsorted buffet of familiar sonics. A high tom here, a synth pad there — each sound has been precision-abducted from its cushy context in the collective pop memory and collided into new, eerily familiar pop forms. “Ambling Alp” and “O.N.E.” could have been on my Walkman in 1985 — if I’d stolen the thing from a steaming DeLorean.

“The way people listen to music these days is very schizophrenic,” says Keating. “It can be kind of annoying, but we still tried to reference that schizophrenic state.” Sometimes this sounds like Tears for Fears channeled through Animal Collective, or late Genesis dressed up as Hot Chip. It may sometimes veer into risky confusion (as Odd Blood’s second half does), but it always sounds new. (Or at least, it should for a while.) “One day, the white boys with samplers will sound hoky, but none of it matters,” Keating concludes. “What matters is what you’re doing.”

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