When a band’s growth is noticeably rapid, it’s tempting to inflate the quality of their output. The experience of observing an artist realize their potential creates something of an aural mirage effect; the improvements are heard more than the songs themselves. The sense of scale is thrown off, impressions of the music become unreliable, and critical disorientation sets in. The question must be asked: “Am I really hearing what I think I’m hearing?”
Odd Blood, the sophomore album from Yeasayer, reflects a remarkable period of improvement for the up-and-coming Brooklyn art-rockers. Their first album made more promises than the band was capable of fulfilling; despite some prominent end-of-decade mentions, All Hour Cymbals was a demo-grade collection of passable material. That album, with its gruel-thin production, was worthy more of attention than it was of the widespread admiration it received from a number of publications. Although higher profiles often hobble novice acts — inflating egos and creating unfair expectations for follow-up releases — Yeasayer have taken that attention and turned it to their advantage. Odd Blood does, indisputably, what the majority of highly anticipated follow-ups fail to do: it sounds bigger, more imaginative, accomplished, and, yes, more expensive. Where their older material felt underfed and anemic, Odd Blood never comes across as anything less than (forgive the unintentional pun) full-blooded. The scale of the sound, however, — and of the budget — rarely snuffs out the energy of the material.
Despite the clear, enviable progress the band has made, Odd Blood is, like its predecessor, not without flaws. This is when the issue of scale enters into the assessment; how much praise do you heap onto a deserving band, and how much do you constructively criticize, while continuing to lobby for their ongoing improvement? There are moments of unmitigated brilliance on Odd Blood, songs that are worthy of any amount of critical hosannas. “Ambling Alp,” Odd Blood’s lead single, is such a song; much has been written about it already, but its placement on the record creates a deeper context for the song. When Chris Keating sings that “your lows will have their complement of highs,” the sentiment suddenly feels more reflexive, as if this imagined conversation with Joe Louis serves as a means to motivate himself. That Odd Blood is not without its flaws feels like a petty complaint, when contrasted with such an open-hearted, humanist sentiment. One need not linger on disappointment to acknowledge it; likewise, enthusiasm need not be tempered by criticism, no matter how justified it may be.
For the sake, then, of enthusiasm and complements of highs, some unfettered praise: the stretch of music from “Ambling Alp” to “Rome” will be one of the most satisfying of 2010. It is, at the very least, as strong a run as any from 2009. Yeasayer have taken the same global influences from their first record and married them to overblown, retro-pop pomp, while in service of meatier, more memorable material. “Madder Red” and “I Remember,” sequenced back to back, ripple and pulse in a singularly satisfying manner. The wordless harmonies on “Madder Red,” paired with the epic, “Ordinary World”-style drumming, creates the impression of a lost, late-80s pop relic. The synthesizer arpeggios on “I Remember” might be lifted outright from “Sound and Vision,” but rarely does flagrant theft sound so seductive. “You’re stuck in my mind/ Like all of the time,” indeed. Once the steel drums kick in on “O.N.E.,” that lyric becomes even more prescient. The chorus of the song burrows deep into memory, begging to be played and replayed ad infinitum. With a solid, reggae-tinged rhythm, it’s simply a matter of time before some hungry rapper throws the instrumental on a mixtape; even if the three members of Yeasayer haven’t been secretly planning crossover to the mainstream, “O.N.E.” might invite wider recognition regardless.
The second half of the album is less remarkable. “Love Me Girl” and “Rome” are both interesting enough, but neither approaches the high level of quality of the first half of the album. “Love Me Girl” is simultaneously reminiscent of Depeche Mode and Britney Spears — that is to say, it sounds very much a part of this current, creolized moment in musical history. “Rome” is more curious, sounding like a demented cover of “Mambo No. 5.” Somehow it proves more successful than that description would suggest. That Odd Blood is so informed by several eras of synthetic, often disposable pop is ultimately what deflates the initial euphoria over the album. The final songs simply lack the same energy as those that came before, retreating into the same haze that plagued All Hour Cymbals. The conclusion of Odd Blood isn’t egregiously dull, but it suffers in comparison to its remarkable middle section.
The pace of Yeasayer’s growth is admirable; but still, let’s not blow this out of proportion. Odd Blood is an album whose highs are higher than its lows are low; those valleys are, however, still very much present. Yeasayer absolutely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Animal Collective, Hot Chip, or any other vanguard of the indie rank and file. Maybe one day they’ll make a front-to-back classic, but then again, maybe that doesn’t really matter. They’ve made an outstanding record with a few slack patches. Flaws are forgivable, achievement and growth appreciable. It’s a brand new year, brand new decade. Why focus on the lows, the flaws? Why not focus on what we have, rather than what we do not?