It’s a lucky situation to be in when one’s expectations of an artist’s trajectory are completely confounded. I don’t think anyone would have expected, even a year or two ago, violinist/electronic artist/improviser C. Spencer Yeh to record and release an indie-pop record, and a damn fine one at that. Yeh has been working on “songs” for at least a decade, but it wasn’t until recently that more of this music has come to light — first on Songs 2002 (What the…? Records, 2009; De Stijl, 2011) and subsequently on the excellent “In the Blink of an Eye”/“Condo Stress” single (De Stijl, 2011). But set against a huge discography of limited-edition items documenting harsh noise and free music, these two documents hardly constituted a directional shift that most people would sit up and take notice of. So while Yeh’s visible commitment to difficult music remains satisfyingly strong — judging from a recent and rackety concert with cellist Okkyung Lee, vocalist Phil Minton, and trumpeter Axel Dörner in New York — Transitions is a line in the sand.
Transitions is a brief 10-track album of straightforward and extremely compelling new-wave-inspired indie rock, Yeh’s husky and somewhat flat vocals set against orchestrated electronics, drums, strings, guitar, and bass. Yeh played all of the instruments and recorded/assembled the work along with honest and loving engineering from Steve Silverstein (Christmas Decorations). Recasts of Stevie Nicks’ “Rooms on Fire” and Father Yod’s “I Can Read Your Mind” excepted, the material comes from Yeh’s dry wit and intelligent formalism. In fact, the contrast between orchestral detail and wry, sometimes ragged lyrics appears to be a calculated tension, and each feeds the personableness of the other.
“The New Guy” is about as hooky an opener as I’ve heard in a while, and as much as it might reference complicated art-school crushes with a dusky and sheepish demeanor, the song might be just as much a stand-in for a different side of Yeh on view. Sure, it’s a fairly unadorned pop song, with towering, crisp guitar lines and canned beats that seem ready for a filmic credit roll. Simplicity is one way to open the proceedings, with a confectionary overture that eases one into the subsequent half-hour of nuanced expression. But there’s also quiet strength here, a steely resolve on offer that belies the tune’s upbeat tenor. This stern pragmatism carries into “Starts with a Look,” keening viola and synthesized classical harmonies set to a tinny and pounding beat alongside Yeh’s shrouded vocals that encapsulate a failed relationship (sexual politics being a common theme on the record). But there is complexity as well, Yeh shaping the tune into a weird, minimal chamber nugget that could easily have found its way into a Lovely Music, Ltd. compilation. “Whose Life” has a Polvo-esque distorted bounce and twisty, shuffled rhythms, and seems like it might have been on ice since 1993 (that can be a good thing), while the title piece drinks from the wells of Arthur Russell, Pere Ubu (with Tim Wright-like bass lines), and OMD to create a toothy and nuanced electro-rock nugget.
“Rooms on Fire” is a fascinating piece of appropriation and, while its inclusion might smack of irony at first, Yeh’s version stands on its own compositionally and seems more informed by the tune’s mood and thrust than being a mere piss-take cover. In fact, I’d argue that his approach is more akin to the reimagining of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue into a referential suite by composer Graham Collier. A hulking synthesized stew surrounds both the intertwined vocals of Yeh and a heavily processed, ghostly Nicks, giving the tune a crumbling, shambled, and vestigial ornateness that is really something to hear. “Something Forever” completely erases its predecessor with snarky Chapel Hill indie-rock vibes, head-bobbing percussion, and a meaty bass line offset by subtle staccato counterpoint and out-of-tempo layers. Following the knotty clunk and curious pan-tonal wander of “Laugh Track,” the closing “I Can Read Your Mind” returns to the anthemic, casting Father Yod and company into a dance-floor-ready spiritual love hit. If this tune was the soundtrack to cultic space travel, it wouldn’t be too difficult to get folks to drink the Kool-Aid.
While it’s presumably a sure thing that Yeh will remain ensconced in the avant-garde, his pop sensibility is bona fide with the release of Transitions. There’s no toe-dip here and very little irony — Yeh comes by this music honestly and smartly, making a fascinating and personal entrée into composing not only songs, but also memorable pieces that make an impact. Although the concerns of this music are different, one is reminded of saxophonist/composer Albert Ayler’s statements to Nat Hentoff (Down Beat, November 1966): “I’d like to play something — like the beginning of “Ghosts” — that people can hum. And I want to play songs like I used to sing when I was real small… I’d use those melodies as a start and have different simple melodies going in and out of a piece. From simple melody to complicated textures to simplicity again.” Transitions is Yeh’s reconciliation of artistic impulses that challenge (and indeed may frighten and unsettle) with those that can hold court with a girl at the end of the bar. Better get him a green leather suit.