Yeasayer offers a wave to the past and a prayer for the future on 'Amen & Goodbye'

Funhouse-mirrored sounds emanate from the experimental Indie Rock album disguised as an innocuous Flaming Lips Prog/Pop/Psych Folk tribute to The Beatles.

click to enlarge Yeasayer’s latest touches on ’60s Psych Pop, ’70s Prog and ’80s New Wave. - Photo: Eliot Lee Hazel
Photo: Eliot Lee Hazel
Yeasayer’s latest touches on ’60s Psych Pop, ’70s Prog and ’80s New Wave.

If you’ve read CityBeat’s preview coverage for the MidPoint Music Festival over the past decade and a half, you have some idea of how important comparative description is to music journalism. It’s great fun to rattle off a string of (hopefully) appropriate and helpful band references, and then perhaps tack on a postscript like “on acid.” I particularly enjoy that one because I know what it’s like to have acid tacked onto the end of something. Like, for instance, the morning.

The press release for the new Yeasayer album, Amen & Goodbye, features a passage where the band — Chris Keating, Ira Wolf Tuton and Anand Wilder — describes the album’s artwork and the surreal video for the single “Prophecy Gun,” both featuring a psychedelic tableau created by sculptor David Altmejd, as “Sgt. Pepper meets Hieronymus Bosch meets Dali meets Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” 

Oddly enough, that comparison perfectly describes the funhouse-mirrored sounds emanating from Amen & Goodbye, an experimental Indie Rock album disguised as an innocuous Flaming Lips Prog/Pop/Psych Folk tribute to The Beatles. On acid.

“I felt like we had references from the artwork in the music,” co-lead vocalist, co-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Keating says by phone while painting a banister in his upstate New York home. “Hopefully describing one could be describing the other, in a way.”

Hearing the album play out as it does with that description in mind, it seems unlikely that a band could conceive music with that goal in mind. As it turns out, Yeasayer doesn’t.

“I think you have subconscious objectives,” Keating says. “You don’t necessarily verbalize them, but it’s stuff you’re looking at, stuff you’re listening to, stuff you’re reading and then it starts to take shape. Sometimes a song is just a little thing that has to take shape in the production of it, and you’re influenced by a certain aesthetic or you get turned onto different sounds at different times. I write songs but I’m not a writer in terms of a critic or describing things, so I have to sit with it for awhile and then I realize, ‘Yeah, that is kind of what we’re going for.’ Anything we’ve ever spit out is not exactly the way I pictured it in my head, but I couldn’t tell you what’s different. It’s almost like trying to draw a picture of your grandmother from memory. I know what she looks like, but I couldn’t do it.”

As often happens when a band begins the creative process, early songs have the ability to set the bar for the subsequent material. For Yeasayer, that song was “I Am Chemistry,” featuring a lovely vocal interlude from Folk chanteuse Suzzy Roche, which feels like the result of scanning radio frequencies through the history of modern Rock.

“We were working heavily on ‘I Am Chemistry’ as a piece with like five different ideas that we were finding a way to link together,” Keating says. “We recorded it a few different times in a few different places, just trying to see where it could go. We liked the idea of it being linear, basically taking you on this little journey, always moving forward through the song and having all these different collaged elements that seemed like they were from different decades of music.”

Yeasayer’s original intention was to record Amen & Goodbye live, but the band’s love of the process overwhelmed its desire to work in a traditional framework. The result is an album that touches on ’60s Psych Pop, ’70s Prog and ’80s New Wave, all filtered through a contemporary Indie Rock ethic as steered by Brian Eno.

“I’d love to go in like The Rolling Stones, and the engineers are in the booth and the guitarist plays the guitar and the singer sings and the drummer plays the drums, but we always end up tinkering around,” Keating says. “I love being in the studio,  things and mess with the sound and move forward. Writing a great Pop song is one of the hardest things to do — to create something that has a little substance or is timeless. We always try to do that a little bit and then we try to experiment within that same song. We’re always trying to push the envelope for ourselves and sonically try to use different elements and different toys we haven’t used before.”

Although Yeasayer’s love of studio sequestration might hint at the reason for the long gap between its last album, 2012’s Fragrant World, and Amen & Goodbye, the bulk of the gap was taken up with touring. Given the current state of the industry, the road is where the money is for musicians and Yeasayer, like so many others, makes the most of that.

“We’ve been to Singapore three times and Australia five times, and it’s kind of incredible, all the places we get to go and have a good response,” Keating says. “I never in a million years thought I’d have people singing along to songs in Singapore. We’re not U2, we’re not a huge Pop band. I don’t know if we’re a big small band or a small big band, but either way we’re definitely going to carve out our little idiosyncratic niche.”

With Amen & Goodbye, Yeasayer continues a creative arc that seems to be reinforcing the band’s resolve to draw on consistent influences without making the same album twice. 

When Keating considers the possible philosophical thread connecting Yeasayer’s catalog, he admits that the intention is there, but no concrete explanation.

“I think there is, but I don’t know if I could verbally lay it out,” he says. “I like to line up the records —  I do this with all kinds of bands; Pink Floyd, Jay-Z, it doesn’t matter — and (see and hear how) the album covers and also the content of the music tell a little story. It looks like there’s some kind of narrative. I don’t know that I can succinctly say what our progression is because we’re still in that. We’re still trying to make music and reference the past or other albums and try to figure out our end game. There’s an expiration date on every band.”

YEASAYER plays Tuesday at 20th Century Theater. Tickets/more info: the20thcenturytheatre.com.

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