Yeasayer, Sleigh Bells, Seagull at Webster Hall
Centuries ago I purchased tickets for last night’s sold-out Yeasayer show at Webster Hall. For those unfamiliar with the Brooklyn-based band, their popularity and acclaim exploded with the release of their 2007 album All Hour Cymbals. All Hour Cymbals features a unique and refreshing mix of world rhythms, folk sensibilities, vocal harmonies, and electronic textures, at times evoking David Byrne or Peter Gabriel. It was weird enough to stand out, and a successfull, well-received album tour only heightened the band’s visibility. Earlier this year they released their second and hugely anticipated album, Odd Blood. The new album is in many ways a step away from their previous sound, heavier on noticeably artificial timbres and more reliant on driving, harder-hitting rhythms, a dance-inspired approach likely resulting from the touring experience.
Last night they appeared with a polished and visually enhanced live show, starting with Odd Blood opener “The Children” and making their way through reworked versions of most of their material. Their latest album is in many ways a product of the studio, and it was interesting to see how they distributed sound-generating duties among the band. Probably the most traditional role-player was the percussionist (there were two) who sat at a standard rock kit. Everyone else may have tended toward rock band roles, but ultimately found themselves performing with multiple instruments. One of the more exciting elements of their sound generation was the work of bassist Ira Wolf Tuton, who at times ran his bass through effects that allowed him to play along with songs in non-basso voices.
I expected programming All Hour Cymbals songs with Odd Blood songs to present a greater challenge than it did. Although they’re certainly rock-oriented, Yeasayer are more than anything postmodern pop artists. The trick to their success is the way their eclecticism combines into an inviting, affective sound, rather than parade as pastiche, nostalgia, or fruitless oddity, although I know some would disagree with this assessment of the band. The real — and I suppose conservative/unfortunate — power of today’s post-postmodern is its ability to absorb and integrate outside elements into a cohesive flow. I might hear and recognize Middle Eastern rhythms, 80s synth sequences, and doo-wop harmonizing, but they’re beyond the point of presenting themselves as such.
Yeasayer rendered some of their songs in a rock-heavier vein than their recordings, which better suited the live environment. Although the songs sounded wonderfully new in this live context, there seemed to be little room for improvisation or risk, aside from a few very safe guitar parts. They also performed no unknown material. Yeasayer certainly delivered for fans of their music, with popular hits “O.N.E.,” “Ambling Alp,” and encore selection “Sunrise” generating the most excitement, but I hope they use their next tour to open their sequences an allow things to get a little looser.
While Yeasayer succeeded to sponge a world of influence, Brooklyn-based duo Sleigh Bells played to lesser effect. Heavy, distorted guitar and lackluster drum machine beats provided a background for singer Alexis Krauss to scream, shout, and jump around. The duo has been gaining popularity, may have unique pop potential, and did show (Alexis, anyway) more energy and on-stage personality than anyone else that night, but I found no connection or productive confrontation with their music.
Opener Seagull provided a distorted and at times minimal noise set that I won’t remember long, but it enjoyably flexed Webster Hall’s bass cabinets. They also played in the center of the venue with the disco ball lowered just above their heads, immediately transforming the space into something more interesting than the standard stage-based hall it normally is. Having an opener completely different from the headliner, rather than a poorer version of the same, was a smart way to start the show.