Yeasayer Fragrant World(Secretly Canadian) Buy it from Insound
So where are we now, then?
Or rather, when?
To an extent the nostalgia in Yeasayer's previous work fitted the 20-year rule put forward in Simon Reynolds' Retromania - their debut All Hour Cymbals drew heavily on the world music explosion of the late 80s; Odd Blood on early 90s dance music - however, there was still something quite unpredictable about these borrowings, thanks to the band's often inspired mixing in of influences that were markedly less fashionable. 2007-model Yeasayer could have been the work of an obscure, yet way ahead of their time, prog act, and by their second album they'd unexpectedly morphed into The Backstreet Boys from an evil parallel universe.
For their third album, however, Yeasayer have done perhaps the most surprising thing of all and decide to cannibalise themselves - on first listen, Fragrant World comes across as Odd Blood without the tunes.
Those who balked at that record's ditching of their debut's middle eastern spacey-ness in favour of glossy R&B won't be happy with Fragrant World. For the most part at least - the exotic scales and strings of Longevity could be a sop for the more disenchanted members of their audience, as could this album's slightly more ponderous nature, although sadly this does mean that there's not much scope for potential singles accompanied by Kristen Bell-starring videos.
Otherwise though, it's essentially more of the same as last time, even down to the slightly baffling resemblance No Bones bears to their second album's generally-reviled opener The Children. Given how unloved that track was, it's strange that they'd make a second attempt at its queasy vocal manipulations, although to be fair to them, they do seem to get it right the second time around, as thankfully it has now been married to something resembling a tune.
Not that this semi-stagnation should come as a particularly huge surprise to anyone who had been paying attention to the advance press for Fragrant World. Frontman-by-default Chris Keating has talked fairly extensively about the band's R&B influences, and they can be heard in the album's skittering rhythms and polished surfaces; the robotic grooves of Devil and the Deed; the auto-tune whisperings of Demon Road and Damaged Goods; the slightly weird air of sexiness that infuses it all.
But still it's a bit of a let-down that the pleasantly bonkers ideas that made Yeasayer's previous output so surprising aren't to be found here. The only particularly striking attempt at taking on new inspiration comes in standout track (by far), Reagan's Skeleton, which as The Guardian (amongst others) have already pointed out, does sound extraordinarily like The Beloved's Sweet Harmony (this is, of course, a very good thing, even if it's still not that far removed from the references that made up Odd Blood) although its fuzzy synths and technophobic "warning from history" lyrics suggest the paranoid fog of weed smoke rather than the loved up euphoria of E's.
Elsewhere though, probably the most that could be said about Fragrant World's lyrical content is how unremarkable it is. For all their extraordinary inspirations, such as lead single Henrietta's basis in the fascinating story of Henrietta Lacks, taken as a starting point to contemplate the notion of an afterlife, the end results are often fairly ordinary, as in the thinly veiled F U of Fingers Never Bleed or Longevity's call to just enjoy yourself and live in the moment. Folk Hero Schtick, (whose swampy mix of flute, sitar and catatonic vocals with abrasive washes of noise could, if being charitable, be said to be an attempt by the band to throw together another one of their trademark inspirational cocktails, in this case the more noodling work of the Psychedelic-era Beatles with dubstep - although whether or not the combination works is another matter entirely) is probably the worst offender, thanks to its railing against the proverbial emperor with no clothes and just bullshitting in general - terms and sentiments whose use are the hallmark of clichéd writing (and while I'm at it, the title's a bit rubbish too).
That's not the only area where the album lacks bite either. The beats are fairly pedestrian and, while it could be argued that this is actually no bad thing as the various bells and whistles of their production FX and Keating's man-possessed vocals are more than busy enough, it does mean that the tracks feel rather weightless and untethered. Yeasayer have made do without a full-time drummer since Luke Fasano played on their debut, and it's getting to point where someone might want to suggest that they should look into recruiting one again, as the days of being taken aback by the spectacular fury of something like 2080 are very much in the past.
If one can manage to step back and take a look at the wider context, Fragrant World is by no means a bad album - it may start slowly, and end rather mutedly, but there's a fairly satisfying core to it - it's only really a disappointment as Yeasayer themselves have already raised the bar incredibly high. As a listening experience it's not spectacular, furious or even that odd, just reassuringly reliable, although the ingredients are starting to smell a bit off.21 August, 2012 - 07:51 — Mark Davison