The first is that now almost two years removed from the release of their debut, All Hour Cymbals, it's become clear that it was a massively uneven record, front-loaded with a handful of the most likable tracks to come of the hazy, culturally curious sound that's run rampant in indie rock over the past couple years. "2080" was the standout, obviously—a remarkably spry, sneaky good song bolstered by an active rhythm section, vocal harmonies that are alternately pitch-perfect and unruly, and a vocal melody that snakes in and out of the foreground, with a slightly different air about it each time it settles in as the song's focus. But too much of the album seemed directionless and difficult to engage with for too long—its second half sounds more like barely sketched-out studies in tone and atmosphere than actual songs. It's not that it was bad—it's just that its most defining characteristic was that it sounded like a band trying to figure out what kind of band it wanted to be. The results were promising to say the absolute least, but still: a task better tackled in the rehearsal space.
Second—and this happens about 40 seconds after you've pressed play, once you've had a chance to think about your expectations and rethink the indie world's almost wholesale praise of their debut—is the unavoidable fear that the album will never recover from its shockingly embarrassing opener, "The Children." It's a classically vapid intro track: a weird, plodding beat provides the backdrop for absurdly processed, robot-sounding vocals that are half early They Might Be Giants and half My Morning Jacket at their stupid, proggiest worst. It's the kind of song you assume is supposed to sound big and inviting, setting the stage for a Very Imporant Album. Instead, it makes it so that your will to continue is almost completely destroyed.
If you do, though, you'll find the album's first proper track and its lead single, the uncharacteristically poppy and intensely danceable, Ted Leo-meets-Animal Collective track "Ambling Alp." In some ways, it's the immediate, complete fulfillment of all the promise from their debut: subtle yet propulsive, vaguely Afropop-inspired beats provide the backdrop for singer Chris Keating's most emboldened vocal performance to date. Hooks that, on All Hour Cymbals, would have been obscured by lower-fi production values and a perhaps purposeful haze are impossible to miss here and elsewhere on the record. The production is crisp and clear, and it's refreshing, but also something of a double-edged sword: a revealing light is cast on Keating's lyrics, which aren't always great and are occasionally downright terrible. "Ambling Alp" is the most egregious misstep on the record, full of fatherly advice that sounds woefully trite outside the only acceptable context: a private home wherein a father is teaching his son how to get through 4th grade in one piece. "Stick up for yourself, son/ Nevermind what anybody else does,/ The world can be an unfair place at times, but your lows will have their compliment of highs," etc. I wasn't sure it was physically possible to roll you eyes at something while at the same time singing along to it, but yes, it is.
For much of the rest of the album, Yeasayer expermients with ideas on either side of the middle ground they reached on "Ambling Alp." In a way, "Madder Red" picks up where "The Children" left off—it's a seeming tribute to nerd-metal balladry, replete with spacy, "ooh-ooh" harmonies, an actual guitar solo, and cheeseball reverb all over the drums. The melody is effective, though, and while a full album's worth of this would be grating, it surprisingly pleasant in this small dose. The album's dark-horse standout track, "I Remember," is exactly the opposite—a gently pulsing beat completely awash in airy synths, with Keating's longing falsetto dancing on top of it. When he sings "You're stuck in my mind all the time," it's beautiful proof that simple, direct lyrics need not be limited to platitudes.
Odd Blood's second single, "ONE," kicks off a trio of songs that are basically no-nonsense, unabashed dance music. MGMT would be proud of this one, but so would Yaz. "Love Me Girl" is far less enjoyable, with a two-minute intro of uninspired 90s-style ravey-sounding stuff that would no doubt have the cast of Jersey Shore beating up the beat. Things pick up again with "Rome," a snappy, syhth-heavy track with a vocal hook that could have been lifted from The Head on the Door. They prove themselves remarkably adept at a fairly particular sound that will surely win them more fans than it causes them to lose.
It is a huge departure, though, and not to begrudge them their right to change, but its hard not to wish they'd do a better job combining the different sounds they so clearly love to explore. As it stands now, they compartmentalize them too much, and as a result, the most impressive thing about them—and it is impressive—is that they do many thing very well. Even more impressive, though, would be a band that managed to put them all together in a way we haven't quite heard before. Fortunately, there's no real reason to think they won't.