Live: Yeasayer Ascends
Yeasayer: I'm pretty much fully on board with these hippies
People are reading websites that I'm not reading. Or maybe a random-ass Letterman appearance means more than I thought. Those are the only reasons I can conjure. Otherwise, it makes absolutely no sense that Brooklyn bubbleprog guppies MGMT would've headlined over Brooklyn psych-dub-metal warriors Yeasayer at the Bowery Ballroom last night. And not only did MGMT headline, but people seemed really amped to see them: fists pumping on choruses, audible singalongs, the whole thing. (And yeah, the place was half-empty before they finished their set, but for whatever reason that seems to happen at every Bowery Ballroom show these days, even Vampire Weekend or whatever.) This was weird, since Yeasayer have been getting themselves a ton of critical burn since All Hour Cymbals, their monster of a debut, dropped late last year, and critical burn is usually more than enough to justify a headlining spot at a place like the Bowery. Meanwhile, from what I can tell MGMT are one-hit wonders whose one hit isn't actually a hit on any substantive level. Is it because they're on a major label? Or because they're good-looking dudes? I can't call it. And this wouldn't even bother me, but Yeasayer is great and MGMT is not.
MGMT's whole thing is a delicate sort of electro-informed art-pop, a hybrid that pulls its cues from past tourmates Of Montreal, another band I don't get at all. Taking the stage last night, they looked eminently punchable: elaborate hair, headbands, blank expressions. Their two frontmen, Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, both sing in fragile yelps, often simultaneously, both somehow reminding me of Geddly Lee and Billy Corgan. Virtually every song on debut album Oracular Spectacular, which may be oracular but which is definitely not spectacular, unfolds in a glassy midtempo chug, sometimes sidling into disco territory but never straying far from a basic blueprint that pretty much consigns them to the background. There's no dynamic range, no lurching passionate stabs, nothing but breezy melodies played breezily. Onstage, they came close to replicating all those sounds perfectly without looking particularly excited about any of them, barely acknowledging the audience for most of their set. They wrapped up with a couple of curveballs: a cover of Cass McCombs's "AIDS in Africa" with the drummer singing lead and by a weird bit where the two frontmen sang over a dinky prerecorded electroclash backing track. Both of those songs at least showed a willingness to break out of their sleepy groove, but neither one was actually any good. Still, I can't quite write this band off completely for exactly one reason: "Time to Pretend," their one sort-of hit. On "Time to Pretend," MGMT do everything they do on all their songs, but they do it exactly right: locked-in beat, sticky hooks, serious melodic heft, lyrics that read ironic but still convey hope and longing. "Time to Pretend" is a jam, and maybe eventually these kids will manage to fill an album with songs like it. Right now, everything else they've done just sort of exists.
The thing about MGMT isn't that they're bad exactly; it's that they waft away into nothingness way too easily. And that empty-calorie boredom was especially glaring on this bill because Yeasayer, a great band threatening to become an amazing one, is a hard act to follow. It's hard to describe quite what works so well in Yeasayer's smeary, cleansing psych-rock in rock-critical shorthand because they don't much sound like anything else. Bits and pieces of their sound might come from any number of sources (dark frozen keyboards from the Terminator soundtrack, falling-all-over-themselves tribal-house drums from 808 State, liquid splintered guitar solos from I don't even know where but somewhere), but the whole remains elusive. It's hard to imagine a band like Yeasayer existing in Brooklyn without the TV on the Radio precedent, and sometimes Yeasayer does echo TVOTR, specifically in the vocal harmonics that fight against each other as often as they flow together. If there's one band they call to mind for me, though, it's Spacemen 3. It's not anything obvious; they're not singing about drugs over woozy processed guitars in flattened-out British accents or anything. But I like to imagine how someone might've felt after hearing Playing With Fire in 1989, hearing those familiar sounds stretched out into tidal currents, turned into something altogether new but also intuitive and comforting. That's what I get from the best moments on All Hour Cymbals, and last night's set, which ran through a whole lot of new songs before getting to anything off the album, brought that feeling even more often. All four members of Yeasayer sing and sing well, and when all the music drops out and those four voices well up, it's just gorgeous.
Yeasayer are just now getting back to New York after spending a month on tour, an experience that seemed to freak them out pretty badly. "It's a very, very big country out there, and it's not all pretty," said nominal frontman Chris Keating in between rambling about how glad they were to be back. I hope they haven't been put off touring entirely, since they could use some more time onstage. Last night, they seemed almost withdrawn, Keating pacing the middle of the stage eyes closed and singing into the crook of his arm when I would've liked to see him planting his foot on the monitor and screaming this stuff right at us. But even if they didn't quite look like a band just finding their voice, they sure sounded like it. Maybe it's wrong for me to pit the two bands at the top of the bill against each other. This isn't a competition, after all, and Keating kept enthusing about how much he loves the dudes in MGMT. But Yeasayer is right on the brink of something incredible, and I hope people notice. If they keep opening for shittier bands, that might not happen.