It’s tough being Yeasayer. Out of all the bands to spawn around the time of the “Brooklyn band” tag (and survive the initial onslaught of hype), they always seem to be overshadowed by their contemporaries. They haven’t broken out like Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, or Grizzly Bear have across the past two years and they’re steadily losing cred with the Pitchfork crowd that initially championed them, so where do they go next to avoid becoming another band in the ever-growing American indie landfill?
Fragrant World answers that question with the band’s most focused, immediate, and hook-filled songs to date. In a move that will please both fans of the band’s psychedelic-leaning debut All Hour Cymbals and its admittedly poppier follow-up Odd Blood, Fragrant World explores both of those directions, devoting about one-quarter of the record to hazy, shifty soundscapes and the rest to groove-heavy pop numbers. While this move makes a move for a broader appeal, it also removes any sense of cohesion, which makes Fragrant World an album that works better in small chunks than a whole play-through.
Out of the two styles though - much to the dismay of fans who cried “sellout” after the band’s foray into pop - where Fragrant World succeeds the most is in its less-psychedelic moments. The opening moan of “Fingers Won’t Bleed” and the slinky “Henrietta” recall Odd Blood‘s more immediate and meticulously crafted moments and produce similar results. The band has begun to hone their sense of groove and singer Chris Keating is writing more infectious hooks than ever, and although they haven’t abandoned their penchant for warped vocals, shifting textures or Middle Eastern-tinges, these once-defining characteristics are starting to play a supporting role. However, these characteristics of their older work don’t hold up when they’re placed at the forefront anymore, and it’s the moments where the band tries to digress from their pop inclinations that bring Fragrant World‘s otherwise good-pacing to a halt. “Folk Hero Schtick”, the second half of “Blue Paper”, and closer “Glass of the Microscope” all aim for a happy middle ground between the band’s psychedelic and pop tendencies, but that compromise doesn’t really exist, and they end up sounding aimless and half-finished.
In the press circuit leading up to Odd Blood, the band claimed that the album’s excursions into pop were just inquisitive, but pop music is no longer an experiment for the band - it’s infused in their D.N.A. at this point. They’ve embraced hummable melodies, heavy grooves, and dance-floor rhythms more than ever, and it’s a surprisingly natural fit for the group. Crisper and more focused, the songs on Fragrant World sound more energetic and engaged than anything else in the band’s catalog, and if executed well, Fragrant World could end up as an album that makes more sense live than it does in headphones. In fact, the band’s rhythm section is starting to step into the spotlight more than ever. The jerky stomp of “Longevity” and four-on-the-floor burner “Reagan’s Skeleton” are just as likely to start a festival tent dance party as anything Cut Copy has put out in the last few years, and combined with Keating’s increasingly sing-along worthy choruses, the more upbeat songs on Fragrant World show that Yeasayer are becoming increasingly conscious of writing songs that are friendly to a casual audience.
Whether they meant to or not, Yeasayer have played the same card all of their Brooklyn contemporaries played on their breakthrough albums - they’ve refined their pop sensibilities to a level that’s just accessible enough to reach the point where they seamlessly meld with their more esoteric tendencies. Where Fragrant World falls short though, is when the two styles don’t reach that point. When the album is unable to fully commit to one style (in this case, the band’s more melodic inclinations), the band comes off as muddled and confused. What is clear though, is that if Fragrant World‘s emphasis on sonically-conscious pop is any indicator, Yeasayer are quickly moving away from whatever obscurity-loving, intentionally difficult, ironic mustache-sporting stereotype they’re afraid of being pigeonholed as. In all likelihood, this album won’t be a Veckitimest or Bitte Orca-style breakthrough - primarily the album lacks a single with even a hint of crossover appeal like “Two Weeks” or “Stillness is the Move” - but if that’s what they’re gunning for, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. More accessible and more intricately layered than its predecessor, Fragrant World is Yeasayer’s most immediate release to date, and although it doesn’t stand well as a whole album, it excels as a collection of songs, which in 2012, is something that the iPod generation can get behind. Yeasayer are reaching for the next level, and if the listener response to this stylistic direction mirrors the response Merriweather Post Pavilion, Veckatimest, or Bitte Orca received, the once-upon-a-time “Brooklyn band” could be hanging out with Stephen Colbert very soon.