Chris Keating never planned on being a musician in a buzzed-about indie-rock band. Instead, he wanted to be a filmmaker. He entered Rhode Island School of Design first as a design student, then switched to film. He not only discovered the works of Werner Herzog, Nicolas Roeg, and John Boorman but also absorbed their soundtracks — ambient scores by groups like Tangerine Dream and Popol Vuh.
Years later, he admits he knows more about film history than rock history, and it should be no surprise that Yeasayer, which also includes longtime friends Anand Wilder and Ira Wolf Tuton, makes music that sounds highly cinematic. "I think of each song as a little movie," Keating says. "We try to think of visual cues and sonic textures and go into different worlds in our songs — little portals into a universe that we get to make up and control."
Yeasayer's second album, Odd Blood, is full of such doorways, framed by Wilder's and Tuton's burbling synths and skittering programmed beats that sound simultaneously organic and synthetic, digital and analog. At its best, however, Odd Blood remains a pop album — compact and formidably catchy, futuristic but familiar.
"I Remember" is a prom theme for a post-apocalyptic teen movie — think Night of the Comet or Dead-End Drive In. "Madder Rose" finds the midpoint between David Bowie and Flock of Seagulls, while "O.N.E." is a spry dance track whose modified disco beat, New Romantic synths, and Keating's Princely vocals on the bridge offset the kiss-off cynicism of the lyrics. When Yeasayer loosens up the arrangements, the album loses some of its focus and charm. After a lengthy chase-scene intro, "Love Me Girl" fails to settle into its hook, while "Grizelda" becomes an overlong scene that misses most of its cues.
Musically, Odd Blood is a far cry from the band's 2007 debut, All Hour Cymbals, which combined tribal drums, Afro-pop guitars, and circular chants into an earthier, more rustic pop sound. Its cinematic equivalent wasn't Popol Vuh but Vobin, the fusion-rock band that Dario Argento formed to score his horror flicks in the '70s and '80s. That organic sound distinguished the album and garnered Yeasayer a strong, avid fanbase, so developing that sound so dramatically on Odd Blood was a risk that could alienate listeners. But Keating insists it was a natural progression for the trio:
"It was a concerted effort to maintain an organic development," he explains. "We knew we wanted to do something different and not work in the same way. We tried to think about whatever the defining elements of the last record were, architecturally and sonically, and strip some of those away and find new ways to fill those holes."
To record Odd Blood, the band fled the distractions of Brooklyn and spent three months in a rented house in rural Woodstock, where the isolation allowed them a very casual work schedule. "When we weren't being productive," Keating says, "we would watch a movie or read a book or make a fire. When we were, we would work for 20 hours straight. And we didn't have any restrictions. It's not like renting a studio, where if you're not being productive you feel like you're wasting their time."
That informal setting influenced the record in interesting ways, especially for Keating, who may be the band's chief lyrics writer but insists he is no poet: "I'm getting into poetry now as I get older, but when I was a kid, I couldn't give a shit. I didn't understand poetry without music. I always have to be inspired by the way the music sounds to come up with lyrics, so the hardest thing about writing songs for me is getting the initial idea."
In Woodstock, inspiration came from unusual places. One night the band watched a documentary called Cocaine Cowboys about drug smugglers in Miami. That became the basis for "Grizelda," the pulsing closer named after real-life criminal Griselda Blanco. Similarly, "Ambling Alp" (the album's first single) sprang from Keating's interest in boxing, specifically from reading about Joe Louis. The song is told from the perspective of Louis' father as he gives his son advice for defeating such opponents as Max Schmeling and Primo "Ambling Alp" Carnera.
"I heard something in the song that sounded like a punching bag," Keating says, "and I started working on that percussive sound and then put the words to the music."
Floridly and ambitiously re-imagined, these biopic songs nevertheless give shape to their ambient endeavors and ground Yeasayer's otherworldly music in our own universe. That careful balance between the far-out and the familiar — the highly conceptual and the urgently musical — is earning the band fans beyond its expectations. A recent tour of Europe had them playing the main stages where they had barely filled smaller rooms just a few years ago, and Keating notes a change in their fan demographic:
"There are more kids there who aren't what they call musos in the UK. Which is cool, because we don't need to appeal to arty types, which is what I am. We want to have as diverse a crowd as possible in age, gender, race. I'd like the idea of Yeasayer to appeal to as many people as possible." After a beat, he adds, "without having to compromise."