Consistency is not Yeasayer's strong suit. Sometimes you can listen to their songs and enjoy them for the well-written pop hits they are. But other times you turn them on and wonder what on earth you're listening to. 2010's Odd Blood featured some of the band's most magnetizing singles to date, but at their worst it sounded like they got lost in some nether region between George Harrison and Tears for Fears.
Rather than learn from their mistakes, the Brooklyn electro pop outfit continue plowing forward on their third LP, Fragrant World, and what was once an endearing band is finding themselves increasingly lost in the static.
But they're never lacking for enthusiasm; to the contrary, it's the overambitiousness of Fragrant World that drags it down. The album is incredibly highly digitized, even more so than its predecessor, Odd Blood, which was already heavy on electronic elements. The problem is that they try to do to much, and seem to have difficulty channeling all the layers and little flourishes into a cohesive whole.
There are fruity sounding instrumental sections, elements that seem to clash with one another, and combinations of instruments and electronics that just don't sound well together. The biggest offender is "No Bones," which opens with some dated synths, a backing track that goes in every direction except forward, and slumping vocals which are so heavily digitized it sounds more like machine than man. Even once singer Chris Keating takes the encoding off his vocals, the track still fails to gain any real momentum.
"Demon Road" is fraught with issues of its own. The beat is very hard to take seriously with its half hearted flute and silly bouncy guitar aesthetic. But the final kicker is Keating's throwback boogie vocals, which sound like they were grafted straight off the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
"Folk Hero Shtick" can't seem to decide what sort of song it wants to be. It has a creepy intro with just bass and vocals, then turns into a goofy party track when the electronic work kicks in. Along the way there's an awkward acoustic guitar riff pasted into the song at random intervals, in addition to the earsplitting accordion wail.
The vocal arrangements, on the other hand, are much more effective. In pre-release interviews, Keating described Fragrant World as a "demented R&B album." It's not exactly channel ORANGE, but the effect is clear. Compared to their previous work, the hooks here are far groovier and slicker, the bass is more prevalent, and the mixing as a whole tends to favor the bottom end.
Album standout "Fingers Never Bleed" shows off the full power of Keating's croon, while providing the perfect booty shaking opportunity. "Blue Paper" allows guitarist Anand Wilder to take the lead on vocals, and he responds by providing one of Fragrant World's slickest and most funkified tracks. Its only caveat is the clumsily juxtaposed Middle Eastern gospel section near the end, a callback to the band's All Hour Cymbals era which lacks context in this new digitized world they've created.
The type of album they're trying to compose here is one consisting of complex arrangements with lots and lots of layers. It has been done, and much more effectively than what Yeasayer presents here. Orbital have been weaving multitudes of layers into fine patchwork since the early 90s, and Animal Collective have made a career out of crafting the type of organized chaos that Yeasyaer seems to be going for here. But those are both veteran bands who have had their share of missteps along the way. SBTRKT is clear influence, but their work has better mixing and is less hairbrained.
In trying to shift their sound in a new direction they've managed to overcomplicate it, and several songs here sound like towering curmudgeons threatening to collapse in on themselves. It becomes overdigitized to the point that it loses its charm and human touch, two things Yeasayer have always thrived on. Fragrant World delivers that to some degree, but more often than not it is simply a case of trying to fit too much into too small of a space.